Last week I asked what book of the Bible I should choose if we were to try a follow-along-Bible-study. There were some great suggestions and I was really torn. But with prayer, it seemed to me we should start at the very beginning – with the gospel. You might roll your eyes and wish I’d picked a juicy Old Testament nugget. And I was so close to going with Judges or with Ezra! However, sometimes even the most theologically savvy Christian needs to go back to the beginning and to re-remember who Jesus is.
The gospels are absolute gold mines of wisdom. I am also a crazy history nerd and there’s a lot in the gospels that we miss because we’re not 2,000 year old Jews. So, I’ve chosen the gospel of Mark as our first follow-along-Bible study (acronym FAB – how awesome is that?).
It’s commonly believed that Mark was the first gospel to be compiled, and on which both Matthew and Luke were partially drawn. It’s shorter and it’s written in “fisherman’s language” – that is, unlike Matthew which has quite dense Jewish references, and Luke which is quite polished and lyrical, Mark is clear, simple and down to earth.
The date of this gospel could be anywhere from the mid-50s AD to the late 60s. Clement of Alexandria (writing in the late 100s AD) claimed that it was written while the apostle Peter was in Rome (this was in the 50s or 60s). The early church historian Eusebius (writing in the early 300s AD from memories of earlier church fathers) claimed that Peter actually came to Rome when Claudius was emperor (which would have been more in the early 50s). Church tradition says that Peter was executed in Rome during the reign of Nero (around the mid-60s). There’s no way to tell for sure. What’s interesting though is that while there’s lots of academic reasons for chasing a date, we should remember that even in the 60s, this was a mere 30 years after Jesus’ death. That’s like having a memoir written today for John Lennon or Ronald Reagan. It’s really not that long between events and writing.
Who was Mark? That also is a mystery. Popular tradition has it that he was Peter’s interpreter. This mainly comes from Papias who was a Christian leader in 120-ish AD – within 100 years of Jesus’ death. Papias was born after Jesus died but is said to have been a disciple of the apostle John and so had many memories of a direct eye witness who was close to Jesus. Papias is quoted by Eusebius as saying “Mark, who had been Peter’s interpreter, wrote down carefully, but not in order, all that he remembered of the Lords sayings and doings.” And that “he had one purpose only – to leave out nothing that he had heard, and to make no mis-statement about it.”
So Mark himself had not known Jesus but was writing down Peter’s memories some time in the mid-50s to 60s. At this time, there was no other gospel (as far as we know). It had spread by word of mouth as the first Christians spread from Jerusalem with the first persecution that had started with the martyrdom of Stephen (as told in Acts 7). There were some letters. 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians and Philippians were all in existence before there was a formal gospel.
With the early church and the converts stretching to Rome, Mark’s gospel in its fisherman’s language and easy style, is targeted at Gentiles. He explains Jewish concepts and leads the reader through an exploration of who Jesus is, from the perspective of a Jew but to readers who have no messianic tradition.
It has a strong and fast-paced narrative style. As we go through, notice how many times Mark uses terms like “Immediately…” as the next thing happens – it appears 42 times in Mark (compared to only 5 times in Matthew and once in Luke). He uses several other devices deliberately designed to draw the reader in and lead us to the truth of Jesus. We’ll talk about these as we go through.
So, once a week, we’ll take a chunk at a time and look together at this gospel. If you have any questions about the setting, authorship, historical context and date or anything I’ve talked about here, feel free to post. This is meant to be as open and interactive as you want.
If you want to read a commentary, there are some that read as easily as novels. My absolute favourite is Mark: The Servant King by Paul Barnett. It’s a brilliant read. King’s Cross by Tim Keller is also good. If you want to go crazy with reading, David A deSilva’s An Introduction to the New Testament is a chunky text book but one of the most interesting I’ve read. It includes lots of historical, literary and cultural context to all the New Testament books.
My prayer for all of us is that we will get to know Jesus again, and get to know him more. I pray that we will be drawn together and to God. I pray that we will find some online community with respect and gentleness – because the reason we are all here is Jesus. It is he that brings us together and binds us all.