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.