Tag Archives: Gospels

Mark’s Portrait of Jesus and the World He Lived In: Part 1

Icon, St. Mark the Evangelist by Emmanuel Tzanes (1657)

Icon, St. Mark the Evangelist by Emmanuel Tzanes (1657)

Mark’s Portrait of Jesus and the World He Lived In


This is originally a class I did with my congregation in February and March of 2015, where I looked at several different ways to approach Mark’s gospel and the way it paints a picture of both Jesus and the world in which Jesus lived.  Originally this was a four session class; my plans are to add a fifth reflection based upon Mark as an interpreter of scripture.

Why do we have the Gospel of Mark?

The gospel of Mark in codex Sinaiticus, one of the earliest complete copies of the New Testament dating to the fourth century

The gospel of Mark in codex Sinaiticus, one of the earliest complete copies of the New Testament dating to the fourth century

Mark is the briefest of the gospels and the reality that almost the entire gospel of Mark is also in Matthew in Luke meant that for much of the history of the early church Mark received comparatively little attention. In recent years that has changed because most scholars believe that Mark was the first gospel written with Matthew and Luke using Mark as a pattern for their own gospels. Mark reflects a highly aural form (having to do with the ear and hearing) of literature and it is a masterful composition (which I will deal with in part 5) but before I go any deeper perhaps it is worth asking the question ‘why do we have Mark or any gospel in the first place?’ There could be a much longer discussion about the process in which we went from the texts of Mark’s gospel and the other writings that make up the New Testament to the Bible we have today but at some point somebody who we now attribute as Mark compiled these stories into a written form.

The gospel stories probably were told orally for quite a while before the Gospel of Mark as we have it today. Jesus’ crucifixion probably took place around 30 C.E. (or A.D.-C.E. stands for Common Area which is the more commonly used in scholarly writing, but it reflects the same dating as A.D. which is the old Latin abbreviation for the year of our Lord). In the time after Jesus’ death the message begins to spread throughout the Roman Empire and the dynamics of the early church began to change from a Jewish community centered in Jerusalem and Palestine to a predominantly non-Jewish/Gentile community located throughout the Roman Empire. As both time and distance separated these early Christian communities from the life of Jesus and the land Jesus lived in there was a need to maintain some continuity of the story. Most scholars believe Mark’s gospel was written sometime around 70 C.E. which is the time of the Jewish War with Rome and with the collapse of Jerusalem and the dispersion of the followers of Jesus there is also the loss of a central place where the original witness of the story could be referred to. This is also the time when many of Jesus’ original followers begin to be martyred and the first witnesses to the story are being lost. Christianity was also increasingly finding itself on the outside of the Jewish people and with the collapse of the temple and Jerusalem it was a time where the followers of Jesus began to seek construct an identity now as Christians and no longer directly connected with Judaism.

In times of crisis where people are attempting to construct their identity some basic questions come up: Who are we? What do we believe? Where do we find our sources of authority? And there are many ways that the New Testament wrestles with this, there are the letter of Paul for example to the early communities he was connected with which tell their own story and through a dialogical exchange try to form identity, but for the communities of the early church they also went back and told stories of Jesus. With losing of some of the early witnesses there was a need to collect together these stories in a way that could be passed on to ensure the continuity of faith from generation to generation. The gospel of Mark through telling these stories became an enduring witness to the faith and the questions of a people who came together and wondered about the mystery of the way that God had met them in Jesus of Nazareth.  Unlike some of my other documents, this will not go step by step through a book of scripture but will instead suggest some different windows to help understand the world the scriptures are written in and what they might say about Jesus and how they might highlight the story in new and interesting ways. As I mentioned before I intend for this to be a five section inquiry with the following parts:

  1. Binding The Strong Man: The Kingdom of God/The Kingdom of Satan and the Porous World of Scriptures
  2. A World of Empire: The Pax Romana and the Peace of Christ
  3. Second Temple Judaism: Pharisees, Sadducees and Zealots (oh my)
  4. Reading Backwards and Forwards: Mark as an Interpreter of Scripture
  5. The Storyteller and the Cross: Mark as a Master Storyteller and How the Cross Shapes the Story

Part 1: Binding the Strong Man: The Kingdom of God/The Kingdom of Satan and the Porous World of Scriptures

We live in a very different world than the early church did in many ways. One of the ways it is very different is we live in what Charles Taylor calls a ‘disenchanted world’ where we don’t think about most of our lives being influenced by angelic or demonic forces (Taylor, 2007). The spiritual world for us is something that is not keenly felt, but the ancient world was much more porous with good and evil external forces acting upon both communities and individuals. While we might think about things in terms of fantasy and enjoy entering in an imaginary way into world filled with magic and danger most of our lives spend very little time in reflection upon the supernatural. We also live in a very scientific world where diseases for example are caused by certain germs or viruses and there are treatments we can use to counteract these things that we can now see under a microscope. The ancient world saw things much differently, sickness may be either inflicted demonically or as a judgment for one’s sins (where one is receiving the cost of some action one has done against one’s community or by extension the deity one’s community worshipped).

The gospel of Mark inhabits this porous world where Satan, demons unclean spirits, hostile storms and the demonic power of sickness keep people separated from community. Healing and exorcisms were the province of the religious authorities, there were doctors at the time but their ability to heal was very limited. Wounds could be bound up and broken bones healed, but modern medicine is a very recent phenomena. On the other hand there was a much tighter bond among the community and the community and their devotion were a strong ward against the intrusion of evil. This is a time where there are very real fears of contamination and that if someone was feared to be a contamination agent (by either ethical or physical symptoms) they were excluded from the community. In a world of magic and exorcisms Jesus is, among other things, presented as a healer and exorcist in the gospel of Mark.

Binding the Strongman

20 and the crown dame together again, so that they could not even eat.21When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.”22 And the scribes who came from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts our demon.” 23 And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom will not be able to stand.25 And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. 26 And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. 27But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered. Mark 3: 20-27

Jesus Healing the Gerasene, medieval image

Jesus Healing the Gerasene, medieval image

When Ched Myers wrote Binding the Strongman (Myers, 1988) in the late 80s he called attention back to the reality that for Mark’s gospel there is a continual presence of the demonic and the attention that is paid to Jesus’ role as an exorcist. For Myer’s the above passage provided a key to understanding the gospel of Mark, where Jesus is able to do the healing and casting out of demons because he has already bound the strongman and stands victorious over those demonic powers.  How does this type of reading make sense of the world of Jesus as it is presented in Mark’s gospel? It helps illuminate why Mark spends so much time focusing on the actions of Jesus as a demonstration of the reality of the kingdom of God being present in the midst of the world.

Unlike the other gospels, Mark begins with a very terse and loaded entry into the gospel. Matthew begins with an extended genealogy, Luke with an extended birth story for both John the Baptist and Jesus, John with a poetic introduction to Jesus as the Word of God made flesh, but Mark begins simply: The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God. Mark 1.1 and then launches into the story of Jesus as an adult. Yet in this short little verse there is a lot to unpack.  To call this a gospel to us is simply to declare it as good news, but in the ancient world gospels were royal proclamations and often declared that an area was now under the power of Caesar or one of Caesar’s vassals, but this begins as the gospel of Jesus the Christ, and Christ is the Greek word for messiah (anointed one) which is also a title for king. To declare Jesus as son of God also has some implications in the Roman context which I will address in the next post on this, but it also had implications for the porous world of ancient Palestine as the source of Jesus’ authority. Mark’s gospel will wonder about the mystery of who Jesus is and will allude to things strongly in some areas and more elusively in others, but that there is a connection between Jesus and the God of Israel is never in doubt for Mark’s readers.

Mark quickly moves us into the baptism scene where we get to see what Jesus sees. We get a glimpse that those around Jesus do not get into who he is and we begin to wonder what this will be. We get to hear the voice from heaven declare of Jesus, ‘this is my Son, the beloved one with who I am well pleased’ we get to see the heavens ripped open and the spirit descending upon Jesus. Mark wants us to know that the world is now changed and that the separation between the heavens and earth are now opened up (irreparably- Mark’s use of the unusual word for ripping is unlike Matthew and Luke where the heavens open up for a moment) and the kingdom of God is at hand has to do with God’s proximity to the world. The God of Israel is no longer distant or detached but is now present in the world and that changes the way things are. Mark wastes little time with Jesus being out in the wilderness, there is no long temptation narrative like in Matthew or Luke, but rather Jesus is simply cast out into the wilderness, tempted by Satan and the angels minister to him. But from this point forward the demonic forces have no power over Jesus and the strongman has been bound and the kingdom has drawn near.

Jesus’ basic proclamation that the kingdom of God has drawn near is now witnessed to by the evidence of God’s power pushing back the domain of the demonic. So for example just within the first chapter of Mark Jesus will cast out an unclean spirit who challenges him in the tabernacle, cure Simon’s mother-in-law of a fever, heal the sick and all those possessed throughout Capernaum, go throughout the region healing and finally heal a person with a skin disease, frequently referred to as leprosy which kept him out of the community. In this new reality ushered in by the divine presence overcoming the demonic struggles of the people many who were once excluded now have a place: lepers (and others excluded for medical and purity concerns), tax-collectors (viewed as traitors and thieves) and other sinners as well as the injured and the disabled now have a place in the community. It changes the relation of people to Sabbath and many other boundary markers of the Jewish community where they attempted to distinguish themselves from the other people around them to maintain their relationship with God. Now with God’s approach the Sabbath is for humankind and not humankind for Sabbath.

This will create conflict because people have invested the religious authorities of their day (which I will speak about more in part 3) with the task of maintaining these boundaries and keeping them secure in an insecure spiritually dangerous world. It is not surprising that the Pharisees come into quick conflict with Jesus about Sabbath, eating, who is in and out of the community and authority. Jesus does a number of things that indicate he is setting up a new community, for example the setting aside of the 12 apostles on the mountain which seems to foreshadow the creation of a new Israel (a new 12 tribes). Even Jesus’ own family is unsure what to think of him and in the portion of Mark 3 quoted above is coming to restrain him and try to get him to conform more to the expectations of the community. Into this world Jesus tells parables which are suggestive of the mysterious Kingdom of God which is unexpected in its nature. A sower who sows regardless of the soil type knowing the harvest will be complete, a lamp that some would hide but is meant to be for all to see, a growing seed, and then a mustard seed, all of these parables point to an unexpected reality of the presence of God in the midst of their world. The parables and the healing all point to the invasion of the world by God’s power precisely in the person of Jesus. Mark doesn’t answer all the questions this raises but instead lets the story stand on its own and speak with its own voice to the world both of Jesus’ time and the world of the readers of Mark. It is to this world of empires that we will turn next, specifically the world of the Pax Romana where Jesus’ message of the kingdom is proclaimed.

The Place of Authority 2-3:The Early Church’s Identity Problem

Image of Christ Pantocrator (Almighty or Lord of Hosts), Hagia Sopia, Istanbul, Turkey

When a movement is centered on one person who is no longer present in a corporeal (bodily) form that the members of that movement can continue to speak to and learn from eventually there will come an identity crisis where people begin to ask, “Are we following the right Jesus?” “Are we being faithful to his vision?” “Are we still following the God he pointed to?” As the church entered the second century it was dealing with heavy pressures from the empire around it and at the same time this early church had to figure out who it was from pressures from within.

It was still early in the church’s young life; the canon (the selections of works that would come to make up the bible) was not fixed. The four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were in wide circulation as well as many of the letters associated with Paul, but depending where you went the Shepherd of Hermas or the Letters of Clement or the Didache may also be present (which would later be viewed a positive works but not held at the same level as scripture). The challenge to how to tell the story of being the people of Jesus arose from within and to react to this challenge the church adapted and changed.

One of Christianity’s greatest gifts was that it was not tied to one language or culture. As it spread across the known world at that time it would be quickly translated into Greek (the language of the Eastern half of the Roman Empire) and eventually into more and more languages and cultures. The reason that the books that are a part of the New Testament are in Greek, not Hebrew or Aramaic,  is that by the time the stories of Jesus are written down and as Paul and others wrote letters they were going to churches that primarily spoke Greek (at least as a second language). With this encounter with the Greek world and language also came an encounter with Greek thought which was much different from the Jewish or Hebrew worldview that Jesus and all the original apostles came out of. As Greek speaking and thinking individuals encountered Christianity and they translated the message they would both be changed by it and in their own way they would transform the message as well. The question has to emerge what is a valid transformation and what is not? Two long lasting assumptions that many Christians include as central to their thought: the immortality of the soul or the absoluteness of God are Greek ideas not Biblical ones and yet with the introduction of Greek culture they become a part of the thought of the early church.

One of the early challenges came from a wealthy Christian named Marcion. While Hebrew thought has no problem with contradictions and gaps, a Greek thinker like Marcion could not abide contradictions. Among other things, Marcion felt that the God of the Old Testament was not reconcilable with the God of Jesus. Marcion read how in the Old Testament that God called for wars which wiped out entire populations, called down judgments in a harsh and unforgiving manner and came to the conclusion that in combination with these things he read and the reality of suffering in the world that the creator must be evil and different from the God of Jesus. In contrast to almost every other church leader at the time, Marcion read Old Testament literally rather than allegorically. Marcion felt that the Old Testament should not be a part of the Christian scriptures and therefore it should be thrown out. In addition to this, in a Greek way of thinking that viewed sex, childbirth and the body in general as bad, Marcion could not accept that Christ was born of a woman-even if it was a virginal birth God could not be born of a woman. For the first time we begin to see in a very powerful way the emergence of theology more than narrative as formational for a way of thinking about God and Jesus. Marcion quickly identified the contradictions and the differences in the New Testament gospels that were being held in most churches, so he eliminated Matthew, Mark and John and seriously redacted Luke to try to remove anything “impure” to be put alongside of Paul’s letters (also purified of Jewish “interpolations”). These modifications were viewed to be unorthodox by the leaders of the church in Rome and in 144 CE he was expelled from the early church. Marcion became one of the earliest to try to put together a canon, a list of texts that would form the basis for the church’s authority and the church would continue to deal with his followers for decades.

Another threat to the view of who Christ was came from those often referred to as Gnostic Christians. Gnostics are so named because they believed that they had secret knowledge that others, including other Christians, did not have. I am not convinced that there is one direction among the groups and the scriptures that we might label Gnostic, in fact they seem to represent a wide range of things. We are the beneficiaries of the rediscovery of several of the Gnostic gospels at Nag Hammadi in 1945 which give us a window into what Gnosticism may have looked like. Some of these, like the Gospel of Thomas, are very similar to many of the sayings in Matthew and Luke and portray Jesus as a wisdom teacher. Others like the Gospel of Truth associated with the Gnosticism of the Valentinians develop a whole cosmology that put Jesus among many heavenly beings and looks very little like anything we would recognize as Christian. Like Marcion they held the body as bad and the soul as good (or divine spark would be a term you might see in Gnostic gospels) and the purpose of having the proper Gnostic knowledge is for that soul or divine spark to be liberated from the body.  Again the early church made the decision that this was not an accurate representation of the faith and the Gnostic gospels would not become a part of the canon.

Each time a crisis presented itself between a Greek way of thinking and a Jewish way of thinking the church attempted to remain with the Jewish way. At the same time, even while trying to remain close to the Jewish origins of the story, the questions that were being asked were no longer the questions of the Hebrew mind, they were the questions of the Greek world. The Bible began to be viewed in terms that were familiar to the Greek way of thinking, so God had to be omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent (all powerful, all knowing and present everywhere) and this rather than the narrative became decisive for decisions. The biblical hope of a bodily resurrection at the return of Jesus, the participation in the new creation and all the images that populate the gospels and Paul’s letters began to be read in terms of the soul joining God in heaven. The story when it was read was often interpreted allegorically (there are gifts and challenges that come with this) and theology and a few common practices became the points where identity was formed for the early church. It is to these practices we will turn next.

purple rose 01 by picsofflowers.blogspot.com

The Place of Authority Part 2-1: The Beginning of the Christian Story

Carl Heinrich Bloch, The Sermon on the Mount, Public Domain Image

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Philippians 2.5-8

This project continues to evolve, and I have started a new major section with the beginning of the Christian story, so I have changed from a simple number (this would be number 6 I believe) to a combined number with a section and for lack of a better term a chapter. My intent was not to make a book, but we shall see how this continues to evolve.

The English New Testament Scholar N.T. Wright wisely states in his The New Testament and the People of God that, “it is impossible to talk about the origin of Christianity without being confronted with the question of God.” (Wright, 81) In Judaism the question of God was mediated throughout the time period we covered by temple or priest, prophet or king, judge or clan leader and yet in the very beginning of the Christian story we see things concentrated in one person like never before and within that early identity all of the previous sources of authority are at least re-evaluated if not completely redefined.

As movement Christianity has its origins in the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth and his message about God’s kingdom. In many respects it is a remarkable and unexpected story how a movement could be centered on an individual who was not wealthy, not one of the elites of the time, did not command armies or write any books. Instead Jesus lived a rather short life by our standards. Sometime in his thirties was taken prisoner by the Jewish religious authorities and the Jewish religious authorities in collusion with the Roman political authorities would have him crucified. Crucifixion was a scandalous death reserved for low class citizens and slaves.  An upper class citizen might have been beheaded for treason, but crucifixion was meant to be slow, painful and humiliating—the person was made into a dying billboard to be an example of what it means to mess with the powers that are in charge. Yet, there is something in this one Jewish man, among the thousands of Jews that will be crucified over the time of Roman rule that gave birth a movement that for 2,000 years has grown to become at points one of the major authorities of the western world. No person has probably had more written about him, has inspired more debate and devotion than Jesus of Nazareth.

I am not an unbiased in my examinations of this (and no one ever is really unbiased), I am a part of this movement some two millennia later. Even though I will not be spending much time on what happens in the movement from Good Friday where Jesus is crucified to Easter when his disciples come to accept he is alive and continues to be present with them, that doesn’t mean that this is not important. In fact, to me what is amazing is the way even at this time the followers of Jesus are either fit for the insane asylum or they are the bearers of a new message that will turn the world upside down.

Christianity has its beginnings in Galilee and Judea with the community that gathers around Jesus, who is understood by many following him initially as a prophet and at least by some as a potential king (the words Christ or Messiah both mean king). Jesus embodies for this community what his central message, the kingdom of God, is all about. For this community in the ministry and words of Jesus, “the kingdom of God has drawn near.” His message makes an impact, especially with the community that gathers around him that resonates long after his crucifixion. The community that gathered around him should have either died or found a new leader at that point, but somehow (and this is not the time or place to get into the debate of what happened and how it happened) his followers accepted that death for him was not the final answer, that he was alive and that he was somehow more than just another prophet and more than a ‘messianic pretender’ but that indeed titles like Lord, Son of Man, Son of God, Christ/Messiah, Immanuel and many more applied to him. Even more remarkable they began to see in Jesus a hope for what their lives might embody—that if death was not the final answer for him it was not the final answer for them either.

Post-Easter Jesus becomes even more central as a way in which these early followers of the Way (what the book of Acts reports the first Christians being called) centered their lives on Jesus. Their fellow Christians became their new family, displacing in many cases the authority of families they had grown up in (this was a huge scandal). The Jewish Scriptures (the Old Testament) began to be read through the lens of Jesus and his message and stories of Jesus began to supplement them. They viewed their authority to proclaim and enact this message as granted to them by God.

Then something else amazing happens, something probably present at least in a germinal form in the life and ministry of Jesus, these early followers move beyond the boundaries of the Jewish people. Partially through a sense of mission, partially through oppression and conflict, and somewhere in the midst of this with a sense of God’s design they spread out into the Gentile world. They began to negotiate what it would mean to be Christian and Jewish or Christian and Gentile. This was not an easy transition, there were struggles along the way, but it was a transition the early Christians made.  In the initial decades after Jesus’ crucifixion the community had two primary sources of authority, first was the apostles (those who had seen Jesus and had in some way been called and appointed by him) and the second was the scriptures (the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament).

Beginning around the time of the Jewish war for very practical reasons the early Christian community began collecting the memory of what Jesus said and did into accounts to hand on the memory. The conflict between Rome and the heart of Judaism was one factor, Christianity had in that generation found itself on the outside of Judaism where it started and soon the Temple and Jewish homeland would be gone and the connection between the two would grow weaker. Second and probably the critical reason for recording the stories in the time between 70 and 120 CE was that the original witnesses would no longer be present to witness to and retell these stories.

Christianity began its journey into a strange new world, a world of Greeks and Romans and ‘Barbarians’ and within a generation (at least according to tradition) Christians would spread from modern day Spain to China and India, throughout Northern Africa and the Middle East, across the Roman empire and to the areas where Rome had not expanded.  It would encounter and both transform but also be transformed by each culture it encountered. It would be a minority movement of predominantly immigrants and slaves. It would not start out as something that would look like a threat to transform the most powerful empire of the day, but the level of authority its adherents would grant to Jesus would plant the seeds of a deep change coming.

 purple rose 01 by picsofflowers.blogspot.com