Apocalypse now: The Gospel of Mark
Today almost all scholars agree that Mark was the first Gospel, written around 60-70 AD. Mark was not a witness to the events he recounts. No one knows who Mark was, and his Greek is not elegant. But there is a simplicity and power to the Gospel missing in the longer and more elaborated gospels of Matthew and Luke, both of whom draw on Mark. The Gospel of John is unique, and I will discuss it in another post.
I don’t think anyone can understand Mark without understanding the world he lived in, a world full of demons. Both mental and physical illness were attributed to demonic power. Jesus demonstrated his power by casting out of demons. Demons were the first to recognize Jesus as the son of God (1:21-28; 5:1-20; 9:14-29).
How are we to make sense of Mark today, for most of us don’t live in a world infested by demons? Brendan Byrne (p xii) argues that the demons represent powers humans are unable to master. If so, then we too are captive to demons: the demons of social, economic, and technological change beyond our control. We don’t call them demons (at least not usually), but what else are these changes but forces unleashed by human ambition that sometimes seem to take on a life of their own? The comic version is Walt Disney’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice, a tale for our times.
From the demonic to the forces of science, technology, and economics seems a bit of a stretch, and I’m not as convinced as Byrne that it’s a good analogy. Nevertheless, it is important to grasp that while Jesus’ message is universal, its historical context was particular. It was an apocalyptic era, in which the overthrow of world order seemed not far away. Most contemporary science fiction is apocalyptic in this sense. So are some Christians.
What I like about Mark: the suffering humanity of Jesus
I like the simplicity of Mark’s story, particularly the way in which Christ’s human side is portrayed. As Edwards (p 13) puts it,
Mark is most ready of the four Evangelists to portray the humanness of Jesus, including his sorrow (14:34), disappointment (8:12), displeasure (10:14), anger (11:15-17), amazement (6:6), fatigue (4:38), and even ignorance (13:32).
Particularly powerful is the portrayal of Christ’s suffering. As he awaits his arrest and crucifixion in Gethsemane, “we see him go to pieces before our eyes . . . Nowhere else in the gospels do we see Jesus so humanly presented.” (Byrne, p 224)
Many historical figures who go to their deaths with equanimity. Socrates goes serenely to his execution, even as he is unsure about the afterlife (Phaedo, Crito). Socrates is not certain of much, but he knows that no evil can befall a truly good man (Apology 41d).
Christ is different because Christ despairs. His disciples have fled in fear; the last supper was attended by traitors and cowards. At the moment of his death on the cross, Jesus fears that he is abandoned by God. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (15:34) It may be of interest to Sunday school teachers that this is a quote from the twenty-second Psalm (v 1), but Jesus wasn’t just quoting scripture.
As fully human, Jesus experienced every feeling and fear that humans experience. Not everyone fears death, but all humans fear torture. At least as much, all humans fear a humiliating death marked by the abandonment of friends, followers (three women, including Mary Magdalene stood watch at a distance), and God. Who wouldn’t despair? The son of God you might answer and you would be right, except that in Mark, as nowhere else, Jesus Christ is so fully human that not even this is a comfort at the end.
The end and the beginning
Jesus dies alone, and Mark tells us that after the Sabbath the three women went to his tomb in order to prepare his body properly for burial. There they met a young man dressed in white who said that Jesus has risen, and gone on before them to the Galilee. Tell his disciples, says the young man, that he can be found there.
Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid. (16.8)
And that is where the gospel ends. Almost all authorities agree that verses 9-20 were a later editorial addition in order to give Mark an ending more in tune with the other gospels.
We can debate endlessly whether Mark intended to end so abruptly. Some say it is a sign of literary artistry, leaving us to fill in the gaps. Others say ancient writers didn’t do that; this is a post-modern reading. I don’t care, at least not directly. What I care about is that it makes Christ’s return on clouds of glory even more important, for he is never encountered as the resurrected Lord.
“His strength made perfect in weakness”
Christ’s disciples expected, as all observant Jews expected, that the Messiah (Christ means Messiah) would appear as a mighty king with an army of angels ready to avenge the suffering of the pious and the pure. It was inconceivable that the Messiah would appear as the son of a carpenter who lacked even the power to prevent his own crucifixion. Not even Christ’s disciples can grasp the idea that he must die in order that we should live.
The great idea of Christianity
The great idea of Christianity is that God would take human form so that he might know what it was like suffer and die as humans do. God did this for two reasons: to know his creatures better, from the inside out so to speak. And so that humans might have an idea of God that is within our comprehension. As we are made in his image, so God can be encountered as human. The trinity is a good, if puzzling, idea.
Whoever God truly is, his son is flesh and blood. Edwards puts it nicely.
God is therein precisely God in that he can do what humanity cannot do: God can allow himself to be rejected, to be made low and small, without thereby being driven into an inferiority complex. (p 253, quoting Eduard Schweizer)
Certainly God does not suffer from an inferiority complex. But humans do, and so we look to a supreme being who combines power and glory with goodness. The idea that God became man in order to experience our inferiority is unbearable and inconceivable.
Where Mark gets it wrong
Especially because the risen Lord does not appear in Mark, his return is even more important. Not only that, but the second coming is the opposite of the first. His second coming will fit the conventional view of the Messiah, appearing on clouds of glory.
And you will see the Son of Man seated in the place of power at God’s right hand and coming on the clouds of heaven. (14.62)
In other words, you will get your traditional messiah; you just have to wait a little longer, until the Apocalypse arrives.
I think this spoils it. It spoils the message of the gospels, which is that goodness, truth, and power will always be sundered. That’s what Jesus represents. We should be good and true because these are good things to be, not because we will be rewarded at some grand time in the future, and the bad guys punished. In saying this I recognize that I am an apostate.
Byrne argues that the second coming
is what alone gives meaning to both the historical life of Jesus and the lives of those who follow him in discipleship and suffering, and who in that constitute the community of the Kingdom, the final establishment of which this scene [clouds and glory] proclaims. (pp 205-206)
In other words, Jesus may not have come as a glorious Messiah this time around, but just wait until the next. Which, many of Christ’s followers believed, was just around the corner. Christ himself wasn’t quite so sure (13.32).
History and myth
Jesus Christ’s life on earth is history. How “historical” the gospels really are is subject to debate. The Jesus Seminar finds much to doubt, but also much to accept in the gospels’ account of Christ as history.* The Apocalypse and Christ’s return are not history. They are myth, Biblical myth, but still myth, as they had not happened at the time the gospels were written, and they haven’t happened yet.
Myths are fine; we live and die by myths. My argument is that Christ’s return on clouds of glory is a bad myth, for it reinstates a false idea of the Messiah, simply pushing it down the road. This is particularly the case in Mark, which contains no account of the resurrected Christ. Only the second coming completes this gospel. For many Christians, the second coming is what makes this life worthwhile.
I think life makes life worthwhile, especially if it is a life of charity and self-giving. About this life Jesus showed us the way. One might argue that I have overlooked the role of faith, and perhaps I have. On the other hand, to engage the Gospel of Mark (or any Gospel) in a serious way, as making a solemn claim on the way we live our lives, is itself an act of faith.
* The search for the historical Jesus project gathered about fifty Biblical scholars and about one-hundred laymen to vote on the historicity of the deeds and sayings of Jesus. They produced a color-coded New Testament with different colors representing the likelihood that Jesus actually did or said what the Bible relates (Funk). There are lots of objections to this project, but at least it took the historical reality of Jesus seriously. Jesus is not just a literary or mythical figure, though he is that too.
Brendan Byrne, A Costly Freedom: A Theological Reading of Mark’s Gospel. Liturgical Press, 2008.
James Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark. Eerdmans, 2002.
Robert Funk et al., The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. Polebridge Press, 1993.