The Gospel Plot

When we read any book of the New Testament it is easy to miss the forest for the trees. We are often used to hearing or reading short snippets in isolation. What we can overlook, when we read it this way, is that Mark gives his account of Jesus’ mission a clear structure, a plot. Mark, as narrator, opens the Gospel by introducing Jesus as the long awaited Messiah and Son of God, who appears to rescue Israel just as the prophets said he would. From there the story falls naturally into three sections based on geography. In the first section (1:14-8:21) we find Jesus wandering in the villages and countryside of Galilee. This is the area in the north of the Holy Land, which today straddles the border between the State of Israel and Lebanon. In the second section (8:22-10:52) Jesus and his disciples travel from Galilee south, through Samaria and Judea, toward Jerusalem. The third major section (11:1-13:37) opens with Jesus’ triumphant arrival in Jerusalem and ends with his body being taken down from a Roman cross. Marks account concludes, then, with an odd epilogue which recounts how some women discovered Jesus’ tomb empty, but kept the news to themselves because of their fear.

This geographical movement–from Galilee, along “the way,” and finally to Jerusalem–is probably not an accurate historical outline of Jesus’ mission. The Gospel of John, by contrast, depicts Jesus traveling back and forth between Galilee and Jerusalem several times over a period of more than two years. The artificial nature of Mark’s plot is, though, no surprise when we think about what he was trying to do. He was recording the memory of Jesus as Peter (or at least some similar Apostolic figure) had recounted it day after day to clusters of believers crowded into tenement rooms or ringing the Atriums of more wealthy Roman homes. On any one occasion Peter would not likely have told more than a handful of episodes from his time with the Messiah. What is more, Peter would hardly have bothered to keep those episodes in chronological order. In many cases he would not have even bothered to say where or when precisely an incident took place. Peter was focused, instead, on strengthening the faith of the audience in front of him, moving from one story to the next as their needs dictated. With Peter’s death, Mark would have been left with a mass of discrete episodes from Jesus’ life–some no more than a remembered saying–and little over-arching picture of how those moments were strung together. So Mark took up the task of providing that structure, of welding the individual fragments of Peter’s memory into a coherent plot. This does not make Mark’s less reliable as a witness to the Apostolic memory of Jesus. His audience would hardly have expected anything different. For even the most rigorous historians in the ancient world were seldom given a consistent or complete chronology in their interviews of eyewitnesses or their combing of Imperial archives. Where writers of histories found gaps of this sort they would not leave a gap in their account. They would, instead, fill them in with what seemed like a plausible, likely story. Biographers would take the isolated memories of their sources and put them together in a likely order. In fact, if truth be told there is much more of this kind of thing in modern history than we often realize. So Mark followed the usual practice in knitting Peter’s memories together to form an overall picture that was in large part Mark’s own design.

Although this way of composing his account makes Mark less than helpful in reconstructing the “actual order” of events, there is another way in which Mark’s plot is a boon for his audience. For historians and biographers did not just arrange events in the most plausible order. They often arranged them in the way that seemed most fitting. They viewed their task, consistently, as a kind of moral education. The memory of great figures from the past was preserved so that we could learn from their acts, either imitating their virtues or shuning their vices. This meant that what was “fitting” to an historian or biographer was often the arrangement of events that best brought out those moral lessons in the lives of their subjects. Their artificial ordering of events was meant, in many cases, to help the audience interpret their significance. So too in Mark the artificial plot is not merely a convenient frame within which to hang the snapshots of Peter’s memory. It is a way of organizing and analyzing the remembered life of Jesus so that the audience could perceive more clearly its meaning.

Hence it is important that the three geographical phases of Jesus’ work in Mark are characterized by three very different kinds of activity. In Galilee, Jesus spends his time teaching the ordinary Jews of the town and villages, healing many of their diseases, and driving out the demons that plagued them. Along the way he engages in vigorous debates with the respected, informal leaders of that village society–the Pharisees and scribes–who are understandably wary of his bold approach. On his “way” toward Jerusalem, these activities do continue, but they are no longer the focus of the episodes. Instead the stories focus on Jesus’ private interactions with his disciples. Even where public events are recounted, they seem in the main to merely set the stage for a later, private conversation between Jesus and those traveling with him. When Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, though, the focus swings back once more to Jesus’ public interactions. At this point the story is filled, even more than in Galilee with highly charged confrontations between Jesus and the religious authorities of Judea. Now, though, instead of the informal village authorities, Jesus’ opponents are the formal hierarchy of the Jerusalem establishment: the high-priestly families and their scribal coterie who controlled the temple administration and effectively administered the province of Judea. The conflict is sharper here. Jesus no longer leaves the fate of skeptical leaders in question, but pronounces God’s judgment. The temple authorities, for their part, actively try first to undermine Jesus’ influence and then to have him killed. That tension comes to a head, of course, in Jesus’ arrest, trial, and brutal execution.

These distinct phases in Mark’s account also correspond with distinct stages in the unfolding revelation of Jesus’ identity and mission. The Galilee scene is dominated by the question “Who is Jesus?” The crowds and disciples alike are amazed by what Jesus does and says, but they are just as confused about who he could possibly be. Jesus hardly seems to be in a hurry to solve the riddle for them. On the contrary, scholars coined the expression “the messianic secret” for the way Jesus’ tries in these chapters to conceal his true identity. The reasons for this seem to become clearer in the second scene, the “way narrative.” This journey begins with Jesus’ unprecedented, direct question to Peter: “Who do you say that I am?” Here, too, we find the first firm declaration of Jesus’ true identity by a human character in the story: “You are the Christ” (8:27-30). This is followed immediately, though, by two other firsts: the first of Jesus’ predictions that he would be killed, and the first call for his disciples to take up their own crosses. All of this is still hidden from most of the crowds (e.g., 8:30), but this “way narrative” seems to be a period of education for the disciples. They are now being taught, far more explicitly than before, just what kind of Messiah Jesus is and what kind of life will be required from his followers. Hence the episodes of the way narrative are held together by the themes of suffering and humility. The disciples are slowly eased into the knowledge that their Master will meet with torture and shame, and that they too must be willing to give up their expectations of honour, comfort, and security. As Jesus enters Jerusalem, then, the focus shifts once more from educating his disciples to pronouncing judgment on the city’s leaders. Jesus’ action in the temple, turning over the merchants’ tables, is a prophetic act announcing God’s displeasure with the “robbers” who run the whole institution. Not long after this we have Mark’s “little apocalypse,” in which Jesus foretells the city’s violent destruction. This challenge ends, of course, with the brutal death of the Messiah. Yet we still find Jesus’ words to the high priest ringing in our ears: “You will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven” (14:62). It may appear that Jesus has lost in this long confrontation, but the reader is prepared to know that this Son of Man will have the last word. Indeed, it will be a word of judgment when (as in Daniel 7) he returns to remove all who subject God’s people to violence.

Echoes of a New Exodus

In Mark’s opening line he introduces his story as “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ” (1:1). That expression “good news” is often translated “Gospel.” The word in Mark’s Greek is euangelion. It is understandable that we often think Mark is simply saying “This is the start of my book (my Gospel).” But, as we saw above, there was no genre of literature called “Gospel” when Mark wrote. The title was not even attached to his book until decades later. So when Mark introduces his story of Jesus as “the beginning of the good news (euangelion)” what is he saying?

The word euangelion did not mean just any welcome message. It was used for great public announcements that would bring joy to the whole community. When the Roman people heard that their army had conquered the Gauls, that was a euangelion. When they heard that Augustus’ wife had given birth to a healthy son to assume the throne, that was a euangelion. At the outset, then, Mark is saying that his story about Jesus is a world-changing event. Although he seems like just a small-town craftsman from the backwaters of Galilee, at the edge of the Empire, in fact the events of Jesus’ life are as important as anything that could happen in Rome (or, today, in Hollywood, or Washington, or Geneva).

Even more importantly, when Mark began by calling Jesus’ life story the euangelion, any hearers who knew Israel’s Scriptures would hear the claim that Jesus had begun the New Exodus promised by the prophet Isaiah. When we think about Old Testament references in the New Testament, what comes to mind first are often the kind of explicit quotations found in Matthew’s Gospel: “This happened to fulfil the words of the prophet . . .” Much more often, though, New Testament writers refer to Israel’s scriptures in ways that are both more subtle and more powerful. By using a single key word, in the right context, Mark can evoke a whole network of Old Testament stories and expectations. This should come as no surprise. Living in North America at the opening of the 21st century, the phrases “weapons of mass destruction” or “axis of evil” immediately call up memories of the September 11th attacks on New York, the responses of President Bush, and the “War on Terror” which quickly became an invasion of Iraq. Depending on one’s political stripes, these phrases will also evoke either frustration with those who have undermined America’s troops or exasperation at an administration that lead America into so much needless death. The one word “Guantanamo” stirs powerful reactions to the military prison where until recently prisoners could be held outside the protection of law or constitution.

In the same way, the one word euangelion called up for Jews the exilic promises of Isaiah. In chapter 40 the prophet speaks to the exiled Judeans in Babylon. This is a traumatized community, a people without a home, who had watched their parents and children slaughtered when the imperial war machine ground down the holy city. All of the signs point to God’s having abandoned them, left them to wallow in their own failure on the banks of the Euphrates. They are forced to watch as the idol of Marduk is carried in procession through the street, on his triumphant path up to his great temple. Nothing seems able to stand in the face of this monolithic power, both divine and human. Yet, against all reasonable hope, the Isaianic prophet tells them that God has not forgotten. He is about to act, and the monolithic power of Babylon will suddenly crumble. The Creator himself will smash the mute idols and lead his people home. This is the great pronouncement that the messenger is called to proclaim (euangelizomai) from the ruined heights of Jerusalem. The divine voice calls, Isaiah says, for someone to tell Zion that her God is coming back with her lost children.

As he looks for a way to describe God’s coming rescue of the Judean exiles, Isaiah reaches back to Israel’s defining experience of God’s intervention: the exodus from Egypt. In that first exodus God brought the people out of captivity, through the desert, to their promised home in Canaan. In this new exodus, the prophet says, God will rescue them from their captivity in Babylon. He will lead them across the desert regions that lie between Babylon and Jerusalem. Just as his presence went ahead of the people in a pillar of cloud and fire, so the Creator will stride ahead of the Judeans and open the way home. If the first exodus was the birth of Israel as a nation, this new exodus will be her rebirth. If the first rescue was likened to an act of creation (Exod 15), this second rescue will culminate in the new creation. Israel will not only return to the land. The people will finally live in faithfulness and justice, the way God intended when he broke their Egyptian yoke all those centuries before. As the book of Isaiah draws to a close the vision of the people’s restored life grows more and more glorious, until we catch a glimpse of Jerusalem rebuilt, centre of a renewed creation.

All of this and more would have come to mind when Mark announced that the euangelion was beginning. Isaiah 40 was, after all, one of the best known passages among first-century Jews. Many prophets had gone out into “the wilderness” hoping to see God’s promised new exodus arrive. For although the people had returned from Babylon, it was all too clear that the restoration and renewal had never come to Israel. The world had not been re-made. Instead, Israel wore shackles again, this time made in Rome. So each time the people gathered in the temple courts for Passover, they did not only remember how God had rescued them through Moses. As they shared the Seder meal, remembering that first hurried supper on the eve of the exodus, their longing was re-awakened for that new exodus that Isaiah had promised. As more and more Jews were forced off their land by taxes and debt, as they struggled to scrape their crops from the dry hills of Palestine, their longing grew ever stronger to see their God strap on his armour once again and bring them freedom. Mark’s Roman audience may have included more Gentiles than Jews, but it seems that many of these outsiders were expected to hear the same echoes in Mark’s opening. Whether they had spent time as “Godfearers” on the margins of the synagogue, or whether they had adopted Israel’s story for their own as they sat under Christian teachers, it seems that Gentile believers’ ears were quickly tuned to the same scriptural idiom.

What Mark announces, then, in his opening line is that this new exodus has begun. He is answering Isaiah’s call for a messenger to declare the euangelion, the message of God’s rescue. How can we be so sure that Mark expected this one word, euangelion, to trigger so many associations? In this case the Evangelist makes sure that the reader will not miss his point. He goes on immediately to offer an explicit quotation from Isaiah 40:1 “As it is written in the prophet Isaiah: ‘Look! I am sending my servant ahead of you to get your path ready. A voice is shouting out in the desert: “Prepare the way for the Lord! Straighten out the paths he will travel!”‘” (Mark 1:2-3). Mark then shows us how John the Baptist answered that call, preparing the “road” for God so that he (or his servant) could return and liberate Israel. As Jesus appears at the Jordan, drawn by John’s work of “preparation,” it is easy to see the symbolic parallels between the beginning of his mission and the exodus story. As Israel’s “way” began by passing through the Red Sea, so Jesus’ “way” begins by his passing through the Jordan in baptism. As Israel moved from there into the desert of Sinai, so Jesus is led into to Judean desert. It is there that Jesus is “tested,” just as Israel’s wilderness years were remembered as their time of “testing.” When Mark points out that Jesus’ testing lasted 40 days, it is hard not to hear an echo of Israel’s 40-year sojourn on the way to the promised land.

It is only if we have “ears to hear” these echoes that we can understand just how much theology Mark has packed into his spare narrative. Notice, for example, that as Jesus symbolically plays out the role of Israel in this new exodus, he succeeds precisely where the nation chronically failed. In his temptation, alone in the “wilderness,” Jesus resists Satan and remains faithful to God. Yet in the parallel moment in the original exodus, this is where the people forgot God’s faithfulness and gave in to grumbling and idolatry. With a few subtle symbolic connections, Mark makes a profound statement about Jesus’ identity: He is the one truly faithful Israelite! Since he is not only an Israelite, but is (as Mark tells us) the Messiah and Son of God, Jesus’ faithfulness has implications well beyond his own relationship with God. Here is a king who will finally lead the people in justice and faithfulness, fulfilling David’s role. Here is the man who can lead the nation into the renewed faithfulness that Moses and the prophets had promised. Why does Mark rely so heavily on these Old Testament echoes to interpret the story for his readers? In part, the evangelist seems reticent to say too much explicitly. He seems concerned to let the words and acts of Jesus speak for themselves. With these subtle allusions to Israel’s Scriptures, though, he is able to nudge us to draw the connections that struck him (and likely Peter as well) as so compelling. At the same time, Mark may want to encourage his hearers to engage actively in the story he presents. Like the impressionist paintings of Renoir, Mark’s account often suggests more details than it actually depicts, inviting us to join in the task of understanding the Messiah’s meaning for our own existence.

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