History of Christianity—Lecture 5: The Gospel of Mark (part 1)


This is a summary of the fifth part of twenty-four in the course on the New Testament presented by The Teaching Company. The lectures in this course are by Prof. Bart D. Ehrman, the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His expertise is in the Greco-Roman cultural environment of early Christianity and the textual criticism of the New Testament. For those who are interested in purchasing this course and listening to the complete lectures, please go to http://www.thegreatcourses.com.

1. Introduction

The Gospels represent not only genuine historical recollections of what Jesus said and did, but also stories that were modified either slightly or significantly as people told and retold the stories about Jesus. Since the Gospels have both kinds of tradition in them, both historically accurate accounts and accounts that have been changed, there are two fundamental tasks before us as we engage in our study of these texts.

First, we have the task of examining each account as a piece of literature to see what its own interpretation of Jesus was, or what its own perspective on Jesus was. Second, we have the task of getting behind the portrayal of Jesus in each of these accounts to see what Jesus was really like. Prof. Ehrman sees these as the literary and historical tasks of the historian.

2. Literary Analysis of the Gospels

We’ll begin with the literary task, devoting one lecture to each of the four canonical Gospels and a lecture to some of the gospels that did not make it into the New Testament. After looking at the various gospels individually for their individual portrayals of Jesus, then we will moved behind the accounts to see what Jesus himself actually said and did.

To engage in the literary task of studying the Gospels, it will be important for us to consider the distinctive emphases of each account. There is not just one Gospel of the New Testament but four and, as we will see, each of the four has something special to say about Jesus. Because these four differ, sometimes in minor ways and sometimes in major ways, it’s important that we take them on their own terms. If we conflate the four into one gospel, then we destroy the distinctive meaning of each one. This can be seen by looking at any interpretation of the gospels that takes two accounts that have discrepancies and mashes the two accounts together so that you have one account. Sometimes people speak of the “seven last words of the dying Jesus”, which come from taking the four different Gospel accounts in which Jesus says things while being crucified and puts them together so that he altogether says seven things. The problem with this is that each of the Gospels records a specific idea about Jesus in the things they have him say, so that when you put all four of the Gospels together the distinctiveness of each account is lost. So Prof. Ehrman wants to stress that we need to take each of the Gospels on its own terms, without appealing to other Gospels to help us explain the Gospel we are studying at any given point.

3. Gospel of Mark

We’re going to begin our story with the first Gospel to be written, the Gospel according to Mark. The Gospel of Mark is attributed in Christian tradition to a man named John Mark, the personal secretary of the apostle Peter. We don’t actually know who this author was; the attribution to Mark does not occur until 70 or 80 years after the book itself was actually written. All we know about this author is that he was a relatively high-educated, Greek-speaking Christian who was writing some 35 to 40 years after the events that he narrates. Most scholars place the writing of this book in the late 60s AD, 65 to possibly as late as 70 AD, or even a few years that. This author appears to have heard stories about Jesus that had been in circulation for some time. He then wrote down a number of these stories, not simply as he heard them but putting his own spin on who Jesus really was.

Prof. Ehrman will continue referring to this author as “Mark” simply as a matter of convenience rather than choosing some other arbitrary name. Mark begins his account of Jesus by calling his book a Gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God. The term “Gospel” comes to us in English through the Old English godspel meaning “good news”, which itself is a translation of the Greek term εὐαγγέλιον (euageelion) meaning “good news”. This is where we get the word “evangelism” from.

It is interest that Mark calls this book a Gospel rather than, say, a biography. Mark does not claim to be writing an historically accurate biography in the modern sense of the term. Instead, he claims to be writing an account of Jesus that reveals how Jesus’ life and death brings good news to those who are willing to receive it. In particular, this book was not written simply to recount the events from Jesus’ life, but to explain to the readers who Jesus really was and why his death mattered. Mark sets a tall order for himself at the very outset of the Gospel by his initial description of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God (Mark 1:1).

4. Jesus as the Christ or Messiah

These descriptions may not seem particularly problematic or surprising to us today because Christians today naturally this of Jesus as the Christ. But for people in Mark’s world, this description would have seemed rather shocking. The term “Christ” is a Greek term (Χριστός) which literally means “anointed one.” In fact, it is the exact Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word מָשִׁיחַ (Mashiaẖ), from which we get the word Messiah, so that the Greek “Christ” means the Hebrew “Messiah”. This is a designation or a title, not a name. Why would this have been a surprising or problematic designation for Jesus? Precisely because what people thought that the Christ or the Messiah was supposed to be. This would have been a shocking description of Jesus in the ancient world precisely because everyone–Mark, his readers, and even those who weren’t his readers—knew that Jesus had been crucified as criminal.

But Jews were not expecting a crucified criminal as the Messiah; quite the contrary. Most Jews weren’t expecting a Messiah, but most those Jews who were expecting a Messiah were expecting a figure of grandeur and power, a military leader like King David of old or a cosmic figure who was going to come in judgment against the forces of evil that are now in power on the Earth. Jews who expected the Messiah thought it would be a powerful figure who would overthrow God’s enemy and set up God’s kingdom on Earth. So far as we know, there were no Jews prior to Christianity who thought that the Messiah was going to be somebody who was crucified. In fact, the Messiah was not supposed to suffer and die; the Messiah was supposed to overthrow God’s enemies and so bring forth God’s kingdom. Jesus, on the other hand, was obviously crucified. How then could he be the Messiah? Mark’s book is designed to show Jesus could be the Messiah despite the fact, or rather, because of the fact that he was crucified. For Mark, Jesus was the Messiah because he suffered and died.

5. The Mark Narrative—Authoritative son of God

Mark begins his narrative through a series of stories that are meant to demonstrate Jesus’ credentials as the uniquely authoritative son of God. When you begin reading this Gospel, you are immediately struck with the authoritative character of Jesus, who is first announced by a Jewish prophet named John the Baptist as the fulfillment of the Jewish scripture. In Mark 1:2-3, John baptizes Jesus. Jesus immediately after being baptized goes off into the wilderness where he does battle with the Devil and the wild animals, and returns from the wilderness unscathed. He immediately begins his public ministry by acting in ways that reveal his great powers. The early accounts of Jesus in chapter 1 of Mark are meant precisely to show that he is a man who has God’s authority behind him. The first thing he does is to call some disciples. He walks along the sea of Galilee and he sees there two brothers, Simon and Andrew, who are fishing. He calls to them and says, “come follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately, these men, who have never laid eyes on Jesus before, drop their nets and follow him. Right afterwards, Jesus sees two other brothers fishing, James and John, and again he calls to them. They leave behind their father, Zeb’edee, and they drop everything to go and follow Jesus.

Jesus calls people and they follow him without asking questions; this shows his authority. He not only is an authoritative leader, but also an authoritative teacher. In the next two verses, we are told that Jesus teaches the crowd and they amazed because he teaches as one who has authority. He not only has authority over the people that he leads, and over the people that he teaches, but he also has authority over demons and even illness. We’re told in the next stories that Jesus casts out demons, evil spirits that inhabit bodies. He has authority over them and casts them out and people are amazed because of his authority.

He then heals people who are sick, so much so that people come from all around so that there’s no room even before the door. He heals all those who are sick. These stories in chapter 1 of Mark are designed to portray Jesus as the authoritative Son of God. His commands are heeded by all, he teaches with unparalleled authority, he has power over even the demons and even over human illness.

6. Authoritative yet Unknown

You would think that with all of these miracles, people would recognized Jesus for who he is. One of the striking points of Mark’s Gospel which makes it stand in contrast with other gospels is that in this Gospel, virtually nobody recognizes Jesus despite the miracles that he performs.

Consider how people react to Jesus in this Gospel. Of course there are people who are being healed by him or who see him do miracles; surely they must know who Jesus is. But what does Mark tell us about how people understand Jesus? In fact, it’s quite striking. Virtually no one understands Jesus’ identity, especially in the first half of this Gospel.

In Mark 3:21, we’re told that his own family comes to seize him from the public eye because they think that he has gone out of his mind. In this Gospel, there is no account of Jesus being born to a virgin in Bethlehem. This Gospel starts by him being baptized by John the Baptist, so there is no account here about Mary knowing anything about Jesus before his birth. You may be thinking, “yes, she did know about it” because you are recalling the accounts of Matthew and Luke. But remember, we have to read each Gospel on its own terms. Mark’s Gospel is written to people who don’t know Matthew and Luke, because those Gospels hadn’t been written yet. If you stick to this Gospel, in this book his family thinks that he is crazy.

And it’s not just the family; we’re told in chapter 6 that people from his hometown don’t understand what he’s doing. To them, he is simply the carpenter from down the street. He’s been delivering these fantastic teachings and people come and they are amazed: who is this? This is the carpenter: how does he teach such great words? Even though he grew up with them, they don’t even know who he is. Not just his family and his townsfolk, but even the leaders of his own people don’t understand who he is.

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