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Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Gospel of Mark: Comments and Observations, Part I

Back in October our Catholic Thought book club at Goodreads read the entire Gospel of Mark as a short read.  Short reads are defined as one to three week reads in between regular reads while we nominate, vote, and acquire our next book.  Kerstin, my co-moderator, picked the Gospel of Mark since we are heading into the “B” liturgical year where the Gospel of Mark is the primary source of the Gospel readings.  She thought it would be helpful to have read it in one stretch as a precursor.  I think her idea was brilliant.

One gets a different perspective reading the Gospel in one breath rather than the fragmentary excerpts one gets from Mass.  Both have their places, and this certainly wasn’t the first time I have read the Gospel comprehensively.  The fragmentary allows for deeper insight into a moment, sort of like in lectio divina.  Reading the entire Gospel at a stretch allows more for the reader to grasp the author’s intent.  For instance, we see in the curing of the paralytic at the beginning of Mark’s chapter 2.  We pay attention to the details of the scene, for instance the opening of the roof to lower the paralytic down, a very strange detail.  In the fragmentary reading we can focus on the detail, since the reading is only ten lines, and we can draw different conclusions from it.  Reading the Gospel through, one focuses on the bigger picture.  The bigger picture for all four Gospels is arriving at the conclusion of who was this man Jesus Christ, and that conclusion is that He was the Messiah prophesied, and the nature of that Messiah is that He is the divine son of God.  So there is a place for both fragmentary and comprehensive readings of the Gospels.

I’m providing my comments to the discussion, which will take up three posts, but in some cases I will include another person comments if my comment is in reply.  The total number of comments ran to 122, which was quite a conversation for a two week read.  We don’t always get that many for a six week read of a long work.  But the conversation got testy.  I brought up the notion that I no longer accepted the current scholarly notion that Mark is the first Gospel, and that proved controversial and drove a good part of the conversation.  But you can read the entire conversation here.  By the way, I hope this entices you to join our book club.  It costs nothing and members usually pick and choose which reads they participate in.

I’m dividing these posts in to three, organized with the first regarding the primacy of Matthew’s Gospel, the second regarding the dating of the Gospels, which resulted as part of which Gospel came first, and the third on all the other comments and observations I made.  So these are not necessarily in chronological order.  I also cleaned up some of the grammar in places and I put spacers between shifts in conversation.  So here is Part 1. 

The Catholic Church has historically believed that Matthew's Gospel was the first of the Gospels written - and so it's listed first - and the Gospel of Mark followed, but somewhere in 20th century I think scholars have been convinced that Mark was the first Gospel and that Matthew and Luke used Mark and some other now lost texts as a basis for their Gospels.

It’s a little surprising that the NAB right up front endorses the scholar’s position. I don’t think the Catholic Church has officially endorsed it, though I have heard Bishops and priests endorse it as well in offhand comments. It’s kind of become a universal position.

I have to admit I was convinced too. Many years ago in college I studied the nature of folklore and how folkloric texts evolve. Now the texts are not folkloric – they are not oral, they are written, but you can think each Gospel as a snapshot of the oral transmission. Folklore, by the way, doesn’t mean the stories aren’t true. They can be true or fiction. It deals with the transmission of orally derived stories.

Now I put I was convinced in past tense, but as I’m reading the Gospel of Mark now it strikes me differently. Part of the reason why scholars think Mark is first is because Mark consolidates the events where as Matthew and Luke seem to expand on them. For instance, there is no birth story in Mark. If Mark followed Matthew, then why wouldn’t he include a birth story? The thought here is that folklore tends to expands. But folklore doesn’t always expand. Many times folklore contracts and siphons off material. If Mark were solely focused on getting to the nature of Jesus, then I could see him not including the nativity. He starts the Gospel with the initiation of Jesus’ ministry at the Baptism. Look at that first chapter. Mark starts with John the Baptist preaching, then Jesus comes to John and gets baptized, then Jesus is goes into the desert for His temptations, then Jesus starts His ministry in Galilee after John is arrested, then Jesus attracts disciples, performs a number of cures, and then moves out to the neighboring towns. That’s a lot of scenes for one chapter. Each scene is only a handful of lines. Mark is a minimalist. Surely he could have elaborated on each of the scenes. My point is that Mark appears to me to pare down, and if so then the rationale that he must precede Matthew falls apart.

I'm beginning to think the Catholic Church was correct putting Matthew ahead.

My study of biblical exegesis, especially redaction criticism, has convinced me that the Gospel of Mark is most likely the first to be written down, sometime between 67 and 70 AD. That is what most contemporary Catholic and mainline Protestant biblical scholars think.

Yes, I know that's what most scholars think and I did too. I said that. But I'm getting a different intuition on it this reading. Like I said in my comment above, the ordering seems to depend on whether you see Matthew as an expansion of Mark or Mark as a condensation of Matthew, or if not Matthew some other text or oral history. Yes, that would be redaction criticism. Who is redacted who? For me right now in this reading it feels like Mark is summarizing and reducing. It feels like a Hemingway-esk intentional underwriting, and so Mark is quite possible reducing to mere essentials the larger story.

I am on the fence regarding the validity of Q (Q = Quelle, German word for source). Is there enough evidence for lost manuscripts or is it a cop-out? So far every time I've encountered it I haven't been fully persuaded.

Yes, if he were basing it on Matthew. He could be basing it elsewhere. There's no proof that Q ever existed. Personally I think what people consider the proto Gospels were randomly written texts - and note the plural there - the equivalent of scraps of paper today where parts were on one and not the other. My intuition tells me there wasn't one "Q" but something like a dozen parts of a "Q" and the different evangelists had different parts. There was no formal scribing system then. Each partial "Q" was taken from a different oral statement and passed around. I don't know if Q was ever a synthesized text. If it were it would have been treasured and preserved…. And Church history has Mark second. It's actually amazing how often the Church turns up right on historical disputes. They preserved the history quite well. They may be wrong on this one but there are reasons why they may be right.

"There is too much consistency between the "Q" material between Luke and Matthew for it to be coincidence in my humble opinion. The material Matthew and Luke have in common (which Mark does not have) is so similar that oral tradition alone does not seem to account for it. "

Oh I didn't say there wasn't proto material available. What i said was it was in numerous texts rather than a unified single text. That would explain why there is material in Matthew and not in Luke and vice versa. The scholars also claim there are "M' source for Matthew and an "L" source for Luke. What I'm saying is that there weren't such comprehensive texts but maybe a dozen fragments (scraps of texts) which Matthew had some, Luke had some and Mark had some, and that some overlapped and some didn't. That would explain why some texts are in one of the three, others in two of the three, and still others in all three. It would also explain why the Church believed Mark came after Matthew.

"But there are other reasons that I would find it easier to date Mark before Matthew, not just source criticism work. For example, Matthew has a far more developed ecclesiology than Mark. It implies greater time between Pentecost and its writing elapsed allowing for more church structure to develop. "

Unless Mark wasn't interested in it. He apparently wasn't interested in a nativity scene. Certainly if even he wrote his Gospel in 67 AD, the nativity of Christ was known by then. The scholars presuppose that Mark wrote everything he knew or found in the proto texts. As I'm reading I'm sensing he is very deliberate and curt. He's a minimalist.

I admit, my opinion is not the prevailing opinion of the day. I'm using my understanding writing and rhetoric to arrive at an intuitive position.

I hate to beat a dead horse, but now that I’ve read the seventh and eighth chapters in Mark, I want to present what I think is the strongest evidence for the primacy of Matthew’s Gospel over Mark. Both Gospels have the story of the Syrophoenician Woman who pleads with Jesus to save her daughter. A comparison of the two versions I think lends insight on who came first. Here’s Mark’s version:

24 From that place he went off to the district of Tyre. He entered a house and wanted no one to know about it, but he could not escape notice. 25Soon a woman whose daughter had an unclean spirit heard about him. She came and fell at his feet. 26The woman was a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth, and she begged him to drive the demon out of her daughter. 27He said to her, “Let the children be fed first.* For it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”28She replied and said to him, “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.” 29Then he said to her, “For saying this, you may go. The demon has gone out of your daughter.” 30When the woman went home, she found the child lying in bed and the demon gone.

Now here’s Matthew’s version (Mat 15: 21-28):

21 Then Jesus went from that place and withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out, “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.”23But he did not say a word in answer to her. His disciples came and asked him, “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.” 24 He said in reply, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But the woman came and did him homage, saying, “Lord, help me.”26He said in reply, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”27She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” 28 Then Jesus said to her in reply, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed from that hour.

Notice how much more Matthew’s version has than Mark’s. Matthew tells us the situation happened in “Tyre and Sidon” not just in Tyre as Mark. (I don’t think there’s any relevance to Mark caller her Syrophoenician and Matthew calling her Canaanite.) Matthew has her beg in actual words while Mark has what’s called a narrative summary. Matthew has the disciples tell Jesus to “send her away,” while Mark doesn’t even mention the disciples. Both versions have Jesus use that derogatory phrase about the non-Jews being dogs and both versions have Jesus cure the daughter after the woman’s persistence, but Matthew has Jesus spell out that the woman’s faith was great while in Mark it’s rather ambiguous on what Jesus finds so admirable. In Mark’s version it seems like it’s the woman’s humility and not her faith that Jesus finds admirable.

So which version relied on the other? If Matthew relied on Mark as the current scholars claim, then where did Matthew get all that extra detail? Tyre and Sidon are two separate places, though contiguous. If Mark came first, why did Matthew add Sidon? Did he make it up? As a believer in the honesty of the Gospel writers, that would be a non-starter. If Matthew relied on Mark, why did he add the disciples trying to shoo her away and have her say “Lord help me?” Now flip that around and ponder if Mark relied on Matthew as the Church historically has claimed. Isn’t it more likely that Mark would drop what he considered extraneous detail if he were looking to consolidate? The key for me is that Mark jumps into narrative summary, which is a method of simplifying narrative. If Mark didn’t consider Matthew’s details of the addition of Sidon to the itinerary or the disciples’ reaction to the woman and the extra words the woman spoke important, then it seems natural for him to drop the details.

And then in chapter 8, there is the event of the blind man of Bethsaida. Here Mark is quite elaborate in his use of detail because he evidently finds this event very important. The town brought the blind man to Jesus to be cured and Jesus takes the blind man by the hand and leads him out of town. Now that is quite dramatic. To take him by the hand and walk out of town must have been at least an hour’s walk, if not much more. My father was blind by the way and I know firsthand it’s not the smoothest walk leading a blind man, especially if they don’t know each other’s walk habits. And once out of town Jesus puts spittle on the blind man’s eyes and he half sees and then touches the blind man again and he has vision. What a dramatic little scene.

Now this scene is not found in either Matthew or Luke. If Mark came first, and the other two relied on Mark, why would they leave out this dramatic scene? It really does not follow. The Mark primacy has a lot of holes in it.

Susan, I am glad you mentioned all that. I didn't know how much I should mention it myself. One of the reasons I've seen why Mark is so curt on various scenes is that he is not interested in providing a biography of Jesus. He leaves out all that biographical detail (notice no birth narrative) so that he can focus on the one question and this is the overriding question of the Gospel, Who is Jesus? So even the resurrection is not all that important, but the Messiah who cleans away the sins of the world through His sacrifice is the answer. Therefore we see the roughly put together last chapter. It comes across as a fill in afterwards. Now that doesn't mean Mark didn't write it. My theory on that last chapter is he wrote it after he had finished it as an add on.

Mark supposedly has a reputation as a bad writer. Supposedly he has grammatical errors in his Greek and it's supposedly of an inexperienced writer. Now that may be, I can't read ancient Greek, and because of that he was not thought of as a skilled craftsman of writing. Scholars have come to appreciate his story telling abilities, such as the triple scenes laid out side by side in a chapter. Chapter five as I went through in some detail up above is a perfect example of how skilled he can craft narrative. Mark's narrative doesn't necessarily move in a chronological manner, but in a thematic manner. Now only does he lay things out in triple scenes but he also repeats in doublets: two feeding of the thousands scene, two curing of blind men, two demoniac possessed people cured. The triplets and doublets are a fascinating way to tell a story.

1 comment:

  1. In a way, the four Gospels complement each other. Luke's relies a lot on hearsay since he never met or knew Christ. John's is more for the intellectual amongst us and we need to be able to read between the lines of what he says.

    God bless.