Monday, January 01, 2007

The Gospel According to Mark Part III

Finishing up my mini-series on the gospel of Mark is this third installment. We have already discussed who St. Mark was and when the gospel was likely written. Now for some general reactions to the gospel itself.

Who did he write to?
St. Mark's gospel was written to a non-Jewish audience as is made clear by the explanation of Jewish customs particularly in chapter 7. There are also various other clues within the gospel (such as the demon(s) referring to himself as a Roman "legion" in chapter 5) which would fit in very nicely with the theories and traditions stated previously that St. Mark was St. Peter's disciple and wrote the gospel in Rome to a Roman audience. This brings us very nicely into our next question:

Just how Roman was Mark's gospel?
I say "Roman" not in terms of the empire but of the Roman Catholic Church. Specifically, I have in mind the primacy of the Roman pontiff - St. Peter. Since, as we have discussed, tradition dictates that Mark's gospel is really the story from St. Peter's perspective re-told by his own disciple, it should come as no surprise to learn of the clear prominence St. Peter takes in the gospel of Mark. However, this is hardly unique to Mark. St. Peter is mentioned more times than any other apostle in the New Testament (followed by St. Paul).

As for prominence by gospel, his name is mentioned the most (per capita) in John (.18%) then Mark (.13%), Matthew(.1%) and finally Luke(.08%).

In Mark's gospel, there is one incident where John says to Christ, "Teacher, we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop because he was not one of us" but other than that, there are only two disciples ever singled out as taking initiative and or responding to questions. One is Peter and the other is Judas Iscariot. Peter is always mentioned first in any list of the disciples and Judas Iscariot is mentioned last in the one list in which he appears in chapter 3.

Jesus made his temporary home in and first visited Peter's home in Capharnaum. There, He healed Peter's mother - in law (which some have said is the reason Peter later denied Christ... joke).

(The image to the left is an artistic reconstruction of a typical home from Capharnaum which is very likely precisely the style that Peter & Christ lived in). If you have a chance, visit the site above (where I got this image from). It's awesome.

While in Mark, we dont have statements quite as clear and strong from Christ explaining the primacy of Peter as we do in Matthew, it is hard to miss the theological implications of the things which Peter first recognizes. It was Peter who answered that Jesus was the Christ for example. It was also Peter who said "we have left everything to follow You".

Which things are unique to Mark's gospel?
This list is not exhaustive by any means just a few things I noticed: Mark does not have the sermon on the mount (although he has some teachings which came from the sermon such as the teaching on adultery). He does not have the account of Jesus raising the widow's son at Nain. Mark is the only one who shows Christ's friends/family thinking He is out of His mind in chapter 3. That was an interesting situation I thought.

Neither Mark or John mention Peter walking on the lake only Jesus. This is strange because John was in the boat when it happened and again, Mark was the disciple of Peter who was actually the one walking! Its a mystery why he doesnt mention it and I haven't really heard any good theories as to why not. It seems a little more reasonable, given the genre and intention, that John leaves it out but why Mark does I'm not sure outside of ignorance / forgetfulness (while still maintaining that he was indeed Peter's interpreter). It is possible that he never heard Peter mention that aspect of the story but it just seems too unlikely.

Mark has the only story of healing the blind man at Bethsaida in chapter 8. It is an interesting account since Christ tries once and (apparently) it doesnt quite work and then puts His hand on him a second time. I can only think He must have had in mind those watching but surely there is signficance in the fact that He laid His hands on the man twice.

In chapter 7, where Mark mentions the teaching:

Nothing outside a man can make him 'unclean' by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him 'unclean'.
He is the only one of the four gospel authors to go on to explain that, in saying this, Jesus "declared all foods clean". This is significant because it is really the only strong teaching in Scripture that explains that we no longer have to follow the dietary laws of the Old Testament.

What about what the skeptics have to say about St. Mark's gospel?
There are a few common accusations brought by atheists and others who would love to disprove every thing I've said thus far about Mark and his gospel. First, there arent a lot of sites on the subject (or at least I haven't found many) but this site is great.

There are a number of criticisms on this and other gospels and I wont go into detail on any of them and wont even mention most of them because they aren't worth my breath (or keystrokes). But in case you're interested, the previous link is fairly exhaustive on the subject. I'm just going to brush over a few.

First, in the opening verses Mark claims that the prophecy of John the Baptist was found in Isaiah while it was actually found not only in Isaiah but in three different books (one of which was Isaiah). Any study of Old Testament prophecy especially as fulfilled in New Testament text will not often reveal a very strict adherence to the text in hyper-literal terms. Many prophecies were not direct prophecies (as fulfilled in the NT) but what we call typological (such as the virgin birth). These prophecies cannot be viewed as a hyper-literal word for word direct prophecy for a NT event but rather a typological prefiguration for what was to come.

All that being said none of it directly applies to this particular prophecy but it helps in understanding how Christians have always viewed the prophetic relationship between the old and new testaments. The author of the site linked to above points out that there are three times in the NT where three different prophets are quoted from yet only one is mentioned. This shows that this was not an uncommon literary practice in those days. Furthermore, it is not a direct contradiction to say it is written in the prophet Isaiah when part of it was. He didnt say that no part of it was written anywhere else. It is Isaiah who writes the main intention of the prophecy and thus Isaiah who is named.

Now the interesting thing about the skeptics arguments, even if found to be valid they (in this case) really only argue against inerrancy and not truth. Looking at this issue from a purely historical perspective (ignoring the argument of inerrancy) this "mistake" (if it really were so) would make a lot of sense coming from an interpreter of St. Peter and not one who was thoroughly studied in the Jewish OT himself which St. Mark is supposed to be. So therefore either way, it testifies to the truth of the gospel message Mark is about to write to us.

The second common accusation I've heard is of the supposed mistake in chapter 2 where Mark says Abiathar was 'high priest' when David ate the consecrated bread. The Tektonics website does a good job of explaining the problem so I needn't comment on it.

The third is the issue of supposed geographical errors in the gospel of Mark. The Tektonics site comments on it several times and I have written a post on that subject as well.

There are a few others but like I said, I would visit the site above for some good responses to the issues if you run into trouble.

How about the ending?
The last verses of the gospel of Mark (16:9-20) are not considered by any reputable scholar to be the authentic original ending of his gospel. However, they were canonized and considered by the Catholic Church to be Scripture although the Church recognizes that it was apparently by an author other than Mark.

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