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Mark, the Neglected Gospel (From Mark Strauss' Commentary on ZECNT: Mark)

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The following is adapted from Mark Strauss' Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Mark.

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Mark by Mark StraussThough the most dramatic and fast-paced of the four Gospels, Mark’s was also the most neglected in the early church. This was due primarily to the fact that it was the shortest, with approximately 90 percent of its stories appearing in either Matthew or Luke. Augustine of Hippo (AD 354 – 430), the first of the church fathers to comment on the relationship of the three Synoptic Gospels, viewed Mark as little more than an abbreviation of Matthew. He wrote, “Mark follows him [Matthew] closely, and looks like his attendant and epitomizer.” [1] No commentary was written on Mark until the sixth century. At that time, Victor of Antioch, who could find no previous commentaries on Mark, resorted to gleaning comments on Mark from the expositions of the other gospels in the writings of Origen, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Chrysostom, and others. [2] Contrast this with the attention given to Matthew’s gospel, the favorite of the early church. Between AD 650 and 1000, thirteen major commentaries were written on Matthew, but only four on Mark. [3] In the manuscript tradition, Mark’s gospel appears first in only one manuscript (codex Bobiensis), and sometimes it appears last.

Markan Priority and the Gospel's Rising Prominence

A dramatic change took place with the rise of historical criticism in the nineteenth century. In seeking to resolve the “Synoptic problem” (the question of the relationship between Matthew, Mark, and Luke), scholars came to view Mark’s gospel as the earliest and one of the main sources for Matthew and Luke. For many, “Markan priority” meant not only that Matthew and Luke had utilized Mark, but also that Mark contained the earliest and least embellished narrative of the life of Jesus. The many books written during the nineteenth century “Life-of-Jesus movement” looked especially to Mark for the historical framework of Jesus’ ministry.

The study of Mark took another major turn at the beginning of the twentieth century. Three works in particular prompted this change. First, Martin Kähler’s The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic, Biblical Christ (1892) [4] argued that the quest for the historical Jesus was misguided, and that the only Jesus to be found in the Gospels was the Christ of faith, proclaimed by the apostles and worshiped in the church. This is because the kerygma (the proclamation of the gospel) is so much a part of the gospel narratives that it is impossible to extract from them a nonsupernatural “historical Jesus.” [5]

Second, Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1901) inflicted a devastating blow on the Life-of-Jesus movement. [6] Schweitzer showed that the socalled “liberal Jesus” discovered by these scholars was in fact created in their own image and looked more like a nineteenth-century philanthropist than a first-century Jewish apocalyptic prophet.

Third, and most important, was the publication in 1901 of William Wrede’s The Messianic Secret in the Gospels.[7] Wrede challenged the notion that Mark represented reliable history. The Evangelist’s goals were not historical, but apologetic and theological. According to Wrede, although Mark’s church confessed Jesus to be the Messiah, Mark could find little in the traditions he received to indicate that Jesus considered himself to be the Messiah or that he was recognized as such by others. Mark therefore took up and expanded on earlier traditions of a “messianic secret,” whereby Jesus called for silence from those who saw his miracles or announced his messianic identity. Wrede concluded that “as a whole the Gospel no longer offers a historical view of the real life of Jesus. Only pale residues of a such a view have passed over into what is a suprahistorical view of faith. In this sense the Gospel of Mark belongs to the history of dogma.” [8] Wrede’s claim that Mark utilized the messianic secret to cover up an essentially unmessianic life has been largely rejected by scholars today, not least because the secret does not hold up even during Jesus’ ministry (see 1:45; 7:36). Yet Wrede’s perspective of the gospel as an essentially theological rather than historical work has had a profound impact on scholarship ever since. [9]

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The gospel of Mark is not just a narrative. It is a written proclamation of the oral gospel. It is no accident that Mark uses the term “good news” (εὐαγγέλιον) to describe the Jesus event. This word has Old Testament roots related to Isaiah’s announcement of eschatological salvation (Isa 52:7 LXX). The early Christians first adopted it with reference to the oral proclamation of the good news of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection (cf. 1 Thess 1:5; 2:2, 4, 8 – 9). Mark thus identifies his narrative as a written version of the oral proclamation. The Gospel writers are not just biographers and storytellers. They are preachers of the good news.

The content of the Gospels also bears this out. Mark’s narrative is not just the story of Jesus of Nazareth. On a grander scale it represents the climax and center point of human history, the fulfillment of God’s promise to Israel and the salvation of the world. Mark announces at the beginning that Isaiah’s great prophecies of eschatological salvation are coming to fulfillment (1:1 – 2). Jesus’ message is that “the kingdom of God is close at hand”: the Creator is intervening in human history to claim back his creation. No Greco-Roman biography makes such audacious claims. This is much more than the remarkable exploits of an exceptional man. It is the arrival of God’s end-time salvation.

While Mark’s gospel thus represents the written version of the oral gospel, the author broke new ground by going beyond the oral proclamation of the gospel. Although the stories, anecdotes, and teaching of Jesus had been passed down in the preaching and teaching of the early church, Mark appears to have been the first to produce a connected narrative of the public ministry of Jesus. [10] His work goes beyond the announcement of salvation to the story of Jesus. His is the first (written) “gospel,” setting it apart from anything yet produced by the early church.

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1. Augustine, Cons. 1.2.4. Cf. D. L. Dungan, “Mark: The Abridgement of Matthew and Luke,” Perspective 11 (1970): 51 – 97.

2. H. Smith, “The Sources of Victor of Antioch’s Commentary on Mark,” JTS 19 (1918): 350 – 70; W. L. Lane, “From Historian to Theologian: Milestones in Markan Scholarship,” RevExp 75 (Fall 1978): 601 – 17, esp. 611.

3. Séan Kealy, Mark’s Gospel: A History of Its Interpretation from the Beginning until 1979 (New York: Paulist, 1982); Brenda D. Schildgen, Power and Prejudice: The Reception of the Gospel of Mark (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1999), 35 – 42; Francis J. Moloney, Mark: Storyteller, Interpreter, Evangelist (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2004), 19.

4. Martin Kähler, The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic, Biblical Christ (trans. Carl E. Braaten; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1964).

5. For a similar contemporary perspective see Luke Timothy Johnson, The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels (San Francisco: Harper, 1996).

6. Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of Its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede (trans. W. Montgomery; New York: Macmillan, 1954; first German edition in 1906 [Von Reimarus zu Wrede])

7. W. Wrede, Das Messiasgeheimnis in den Evangelien (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1901); ET: The Messianic Secret (trans. J. C. G. Greig; London: James Clarke, 1971). For further discussion see comments on 1:25; 1:45; and 8:30.

8. Wrede, The Messianic Secret, 131.

9. Significantly, Wrede apparently changed his view about Jesus’ unmessianic life near the end of his career. In a private letter to Adolf von Harnack on January 2, 1905, almost two years before Wrede’s death in November 1906 (at the age of 47), he wrote, “I am more inclined than before to believe that Jesus considered himself to be the chosen Messiah” (cited in Martin Hengel and Anna Maria Schwemer, Der messianische Anspruch Jesu und die Anfänge der Christologie [Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2001], ix).

10. This is not to say that there was no narrative structure in the preaching of the early church. C. H. Dodd argued persuasively that the sermons in Acts represent the same basic narrative structure as Mark’s gospel, showing that this structure predates his gospel (C. H. Dodd, “The Framework of the Gospel Narrative,” ExpTim 43 [1932]: 396 – 400).

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