The First Written Gospel
If we had been part of Mark’s first audience, we would not have picked a bound book up from the shelf of a library or bookstore. In fact, we would not likely have been reading it at all. For years we would have been used to hearing the stories of Jesus told and re-told by the elders of our little community. We would have heard them in the early hours each Sunday when we met for worship, squeezing into the largest room we could find in our host’s house. We would have heard the stories when we gathered again in the evenings and on holidays, eager to hear the elders teach us more about our Lord and his new Way. When Peter or others of the Apostles spent time with us, we would have taken every spare moment to come together again in that dim, cramped space to hear the stories from one who had lived through them himself.
On this day, though, we might have noticed something different. When Mark rose, as he often had, to tell us a story about Jesus, he carried something in his hand – a large scroll. Whenever our teachers had told the stories before they had recited them from memory. At most the ones who could read might have glanced at a sheet or two of notes. As Mark stood now at the lectern, though, he spread out a full papyrus roll, as if he were getting ready to read from Israel’s Law or the Prophets. As he began to read, we recognized the stories. But with a hushed awe we realized what Mark had done. He had set them down in a book – a book of Jesus, a book holding the remembered stories from the Apostles which had shaped our growing faith. Just like the Law and the Prophets, now we would have another holy book to be read in our gatherings.
The Man Behind the Gospel
Who was this man Mark who, as far as we know, was the first to capture with pen and paper the story of Jesus’ life? We cannot be sure, but he was probably a close follower of one of Jesus’ twelve key disciples. When Papias, an Egyptian bishop, wrote a long commentary on the Gospels around the middle of the second century, he reported that Mark had been Peter’s interpreter. Since Peter’s mother tongue was Aramaic (the everyday language of Jews in Galilee and Judea), he likely would have needed the help of someone like Mark as he visited the far-flung communities of believers in places like Corinth and Rome where Greek was the common language. According to Papias, Mark wrote down in his Gospel the stories about Jesus that Peter had told over and over again, stories that Mark himself would have translated for Peter’s Greek-speaking audiences. Whether this early report is accurate or not, it only makes sense that Mark would have been close to one of Jesus’ earthly disciples or some other highly-regarded source of information about Jesus. Otherwise it would be difficult to explain why this account of Jesus’ life was so quickly accepted. Mark himself was no eyewitness of Jesus, and yet elders in other communities were soon sending representatives to copy the new book and bring it back to be read in their own gatherings. As we will see later, the other Gospel writers probably used Mark’s book as the backbone of their own versions, so they must have trusted his accounts. All of this makes the most sense if Mark was known to have worked closely with someone like Peter, someone who had walked and worked with Jesus. At the very least, we can say that as Mark’s book spread its hearers in other places recognized the stories as the same ones they had always heard. They recognized in Mark’s book a good record of the Apostles’ first-hand memories of Jesus, memories which had been re-told countless times by their own teachers.
Placing Mark in the First-Century World
We can be fairly sure when Mark put pen to papyrus and wrote his account of Jesus: around 69 CE. Since Jesus was crucified by the Romans in 30 or 33 CE, this means that Mark’s account of Jesus’ life was written less than 40 years of the events.
It is less clear where Mark was writing and who would first have heard his story read aloud. If Papias is right and Mark had worked closely with Peter, then it could be that Mark remained in Rome, escaped the violence of the persecution in 64, and wrote amid the ashes as the remnant of believers in Rome struggled to rebuild their community. It is just as easy to imagine, though, that Mark might have fled Rome as the soldiers were rounding up Christian leaders for execution. And if Mark was not actually an associate of Peter then we really have no clues at all about his location, except that he does not seem to have a clear idea of the geography of Palestine.
The Audience Mark Had in Mind
Still, we can learn something about Mark’s audience if we pay attention to where the author chooses to focus his attention. As we will see, Mark’s Gospel is above all else a Gospel about suffering. The cross of Christ is Mark’s clear focus, and he emphasizes that Jesus’ brutal torture and agonizing death form the pattern for the lives of all those who follow him. This may not seem at first like an appealing way to understand life. It would make good sense, though, to an audience that had just suffered violence themselves and was trembling at the prospect of more. In fact, most believers in Christ would have fit this description in the mid-first century. Already in the 50’s the letters of Paul show us glimpses of what Christians were beginning to suffer all around the Mediterranean world: occasional physical violence, but more commonly things like social ostracization. The recent events in Rome will have simply inflamed the general anxiety in all the churches about the price the Christians might suddenly have to pay for their commitment to their new Lord. There was not yet any widespread or systematic attempt to stamp out the new cult, but Christians in every city were now aware of just how vulnerable they were if the whims of the local governor turned against them. So, while Mark may have penned his narrative in a city like Rome where that threat of violence had become a grim reality, he likely meant his book to speak to Christians everywhere who were beginning to “count the cost” of their faith in Jesus. In this context it is striking that Mark sees himself as announcing “good news” (Mk 1:1). What kind of good news is this that promises to bring suffering and violence on the heads of the people who embrace it? To answer that question we need to listen closely to Jesus’ message as Mark passes it on.