From cowardice that shuns new truth,
The originality and uniqueness of each Biblical author is diminished in the eyes of those who hold that the bible was more or less dictated inerrantly from God through a series of human authors. Rather than seeing the uniqueness of each author they assume that every author is saying more or less the same thing albeit from a different perspective. The mind tends to back project current Christian theology into these authors.
The church can’t be faulted for synthesizing these works to produce a harmonious account of the life, works, thoughts, words and mission of Jesus but it is this composite that sometimes leads us to overlook the unique contributions and perspectives of the original authors.
My attempt in the following essays is to show how very different these authors were in their 'take' on Christianity. Be prepared for an eye opening journey!
During the 2nd and 3rd centuries the Roman Empire had a population of about 60 million. About 4 million of these were Jews. At the end of the 2nd century Christians numbered in the hundreds of thousands; they comprised about 2.5% of the region's population during the 2nd and 3rd centuries and grew to about 5% at the beginning of the 4th century. One of the church fathers listed 60 Christian heresies. Considering their overall numbers one can only assume that early Christianity was not monolithic but was well diverse. We even find a range of opinion within what later became cannon.
In the gospel of John there is a shift, as I see it, from how the word belief is understood and used as compared with the synoptic gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke.
These two contrasting uses of the word belief are:
In the former, belief in the person - who he is - is of concern. In the latter, belief in the position - what he advocates - is of concern.
John almost seems to be obsessed with the word belief, using it about fifty times in his gospel. Six times as often as Matthew and nearly twice as often as all the other evangelists combined.
Compare some verses that use the word belief in the synoptic gospels with verses from John:
Emphasis is upon believing: the good news, my words, all that the prophets have spoken. Examine the paradigm shift in use of the word belief when reading verses on belief in John:
Notice how the shift is to personhood: believes in him, you may have life in his name, to believe in the one, believing you may have life in his name.
Matthew of the synoptic gospels is an action man, a deeds man. Below is what he thinks we should do in life and what he thinks will be the consequences of our performance or non-performance. So confident he is of this that he puts the following remarks into Jesus’ mouth:
Matthew 25:33-46 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the King will say Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick ... ...Then he will say to those on his left, `Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink... ...Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.
Note that Matthew’s criterion of judgment is not confession of faith in Christ. Nothing is said of grace or justification. What counts is whether one has acted with loving care for needy people.
There are other evidences in Matthew which suggest that he believes in salvation by works:
6:1-6 "Be careful not to do your `acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. "So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you."And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
He does not have Jesus say that the reward will be in heaven, but these subsequent verses suggest that that is what he had in mind:
6:20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.
Again Matthew is consistent when he writes what we have come to call the great comission where instead of personhood he opts for action, for performance, "…teaching them to obey…"
Matthew 28:19-20 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."
Keep some room in your heart for those synoptic oriented Christians among you who have less heart for the esoterics of religion but want to be faithful to their baptismal vows.
In my analysis of Matthew’s gospel, I tried to show that Matthew was a kind of salvation by works guy and that salvation by grace was foreign to his gospel. I observe that each biblical author had a unique and original contribution to make. Their works when first written circulated independently. They had no knowledge that their works were to end up in a compendium that we know of as The New Testament. Each author had his own point of view. Each spoke from differing community backgrounds at different stages of theological resolution with different contemporary problems.
The real uniqueness of the individual authors was, however, nowhere better seen than when scholars began to compare John and Mark.
According to Mark, Jesus never proclaimed his exalted identity; that is, it did not constitute part of his public teaching or preaching. Mark’s gospel is dominated by the Messianic secret ; Jesus’ messiahship was a secret during the ministry. Time after time Jesus, in Mark’s Gospel, would urge his listeners to tell no one. Sometimes Mark’s Gospel is referred to as the Messianic Secret.
John’s gospel, on the other hand fits the more the popular version of Christianity, namely:
As the divinely begotten Son of God, Jesus was sent into the world for the purpose of dying on a cross as a means of reconciliation between God and humans, and his message consisted primarily of requiring his hearers to believe that what he said about himself and his role in salvation was true.
In John's gospel Jesus was constantly proclaiming his identity.
Part of the difficulty of understanding the gospel of Mark is the reader’s tendency to back project into Mark ideas from John & the early tradition. And here our early Christian brethren have been of little help. Because a real problem in studying Mark is that form criticism and redaction criticism have made it even more clear that every story and word of Jesus has been shaped by the eyes and hands of the early church.
Miller in his "The Complete Gospels" says, "Now, it is clear that what we have come to know as canonical Mark did not reach its final form until relatively late, probably sometime in the second century. This may be deduced from the fact that although both Matthew and Luke made use of a version of Mark as a source in the composition of their respective versions of the gospel,occasionally one encounters an episode, or simply details in the canonical Markan narrative which neither Matthew nor Luke have included. Rather than assume by coincidence both Matthew and Luke, independently of one another, chose to alter Mark’s story in precisely the same way, scholars have tended to argue that such differences arose when later editors changed the gospel of Mark after Matthew and Luke had already made use of it. That is to say, Matthew and Luke did not use what we have come to know as the canonical gospel of Mark, but rather an earlier version of it."
John’s gospel shows us a very boastful Jesus who is frequently and openly saying such things as: I am the paschal lamb; I am the way, the truth and the life; I am the light of the world; I am the bread of life, I am the resurrection and the life, etc. For these reasons, the Gospel of John is often called the I am Gospel.
In John’s gospel Jesus was seen as a philosopher and mystic rather than sage and exorcist. In the synoptic gospels he had little to say about himself. He spoke in parables and aphorisms. And he espoused the causes of the poor and oppressed. Whereas in John the poor and oppressed are seldom mentioned. No parables are sited. In John, Jesus is often shown talking about himself and his relationship with his father. The emphasis shifts from accepting the correctness of Jesus’ teachings to affirming his personhood. It is far more a gospel of grace than one of works.
This fundamental contrast between John’s I am gospel and Mark’s Messianic Secret gospel was seen as a greathistorical "either/or" by scholars:
Either the historical Jesus openly proclaimed his divine identity and saving purpose as he did in John or he did not as in Mark. Or most directly, Jesus could not consistently proclaim his identity and at the same time not do so.
Now let us now examine Mark’s gospel as best we can in its canonically approved form!
Scholars think Mark’s gospel was the first written gospel and was written about 66-70 a.d. It circulated independently. There was no suggestion by the author that it was to be included at some later date into a larger compendium. Mark set out to tell his audience all that he thought was important to know about Jesus and his message. For ten years Mark’s was probably the only gospel. Scholars think it was 10 years before next one was written.
Yes, Paul had written epistles prior to Mark; but if people during those years were to get their Christianity from a "Gospel" Mark’s Gospel was it.
I, myself, have a greater confidence in the view of Jesus as expostulated by Mark than the other synoptic gospel authors. Mark tells, what I call, the good, the bad, and the ugly. [to borrow from an old movie title] Unlike Luke or Matthew, he doesn’t show only the noble in his accounts; then too, he writes at a time closer to when Jesus actually lived. He was more of a reporter and biographer than an advocate for a cause. His view of Jesus is more human. You might say he depicts a Jesus with warts.
In Mark’s view, Jesus may indeed have been the messiah and the son of God, but not God the son - that doctrine evolved in the church much later. Mark is not reluctant to have Jesus show strong emotion. He shows us a Jesus who sometimes fails in his endeavors and accuses his disciples as being dimwitted and dense. Jesus was portrayed as someone who expected to see a fig tree bear fruit out of season and then he got mad at the tree and cursed it when it didn’t. Mark has depicted some of the techniques in the miracles of Jesus as similar to those of other faith healers of his time. Mark’s Jesus sometimes does no mighty work because he can’t -- not because he chooses not to. Although great powers flow through him, Jesus is pictured neither as omnipotent, nor as omniscient On his home turf his relatives announced that they thought Jesus was out of his mind. Mark knows nothing about a virgin birth and lists Jesus’ occupation as carpenter.
Mark’s gospel ends rather abruptly when a young man at the tomb announces that Jesus was raised from the dead by God. Mark’s view of Jesus was not of a divine being as we have come to understand that word.
Mark has been redacted from time to time over the ages. An omission from the text seems obvious where it is noted that Jesus came to Jerico and the next line has him leaving with no remarks about what he might have done there. The greater part of Mark’s last chapter cannot be found in earlier versions of Mark.
In Luke and Matthew, the other synoptic gospel authors, who obtain much of their material from Mark, Jesus does not make mistakes; his miracles are instantaneous and he cures ALL when he cures any. Their accounts are bolstered with birth narratives and resurrection appearances. Jesus was not a village tradesman but only the son of a carpenter. For their Jesus, a fig tree is NOT expected to bear outside of its season. Matthew and Luke would never put in print that relatives of Jesus on one occasion described him as insane. They have a more exalted view of Jesus than did Mark.
What I am going to say is easily verifiable. Just read Mark’s gospel; it is a short one.
Mark’s gospel opens with the words from Mark 1:1
NIV The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
SV The good news of Jesus the Anointed begins with
In this manner, at the outset, the author of Mark identifies himself as one who believes that Jesus was the Messiah.
The theme of Mark’s Gospel is explained to us in the first words spoken by Jesus in Mark 1:15
NIV "The time has come," he said. "The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!"
SV "The time is up: God’s Imperial rule is closing in. Change your ways, and put your trust in the good news."
Jesus speaks often in parables. This gospel has Jesus explaining the meaning of his parables to his twelve disciples as in Mark 4:10-13
SV Whenever he went off by himself, those close to him together with the twelve, would ask him about the parables. And he would say to them: "You have been given the secret of God’s imperial rule; but to those outside everything is presented in parables, so that they may look with eyes wide open but never quite see, and may listen with ears attuned but never quite understand, otherwise they might turn around and find forgiveness."
A frequent hallmark of Mark’s style was this division between what was said publicly and what was said to the disciples ‘in house’ or privately. Both Matthew and Luke pick up on the theme that parables are used by Jesus so that outsiders will not understand and repent. The Jesus seminar insists the idea that Jesus' parables were given to obscure meaning rather than communicate is not authentic. Does not the phrase, "otherwise they might turn around and find forgiveness" sound strange? Most Christians think that repentance and forgiveness was what Jesus was all about.[While not explicitly stated part of what Jesus is saying is quoted from Isaiah 6]
At times the parables like Mark 4:30-34 spoke of what the kingdom of God is like:
Again he said, "What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade." With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.
The above paragraph hints of the Messianic Secret. Jesus was clearly a miracle worker as Mark 4:35-39 shows:
That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, "Let us go over to the other side. Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, "Teacher, don't you care if we drown?" He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, "Quiet! Be still!" Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.
These powers were not available to Jesus at all times as seen in Mark 6:4-5
NIV Jesus said to them, "Only in his hometown, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honor." He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them.
In the above verse Jesus also indirectly describes himself as a prophet.
In Mark 13:30-32 Jesus tells us that the world will end in a generation but that he does not know exactly when:
I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away. No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.
Mark does not find it strange that Jesus expects a tree to bear fruit out of season as seen in 11:12-14 & 11:20-21.The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, "May no one ever eat fruit from you again."
Although great powers flow through him, Jesus is pictured neither as omnipotent, nor as omniscient as the above verses would testify.
This Gospel is often called the gospel of the Messianic Secret. Jesus continually cautions others not to tell of his deeds. Remarks such as these begin early in this gospel as in 1 Mark:40-43
SIV Then a leper comes up to him, pleads with him, falls down on his knees and says to him, "If you want to, you can make me clean." Although Jesus was indignant, he stretched out his hand, touched him, and said to him, "Okay - you’re clean." And right away the leprosy, and he was made clean. And Jesus snapped at him, and dismissed him curtly with this warning: "See that you don’t tell anyone anything….."
The above passage also identifies Jesus as a great healer and this theme repeatedly in Mark. In the verse below, 1:21-24, we see Jesus as an exorcist:
SIV They were astonished at his teaching, since he would teach them on his own authority, unlike the scholars. Now right there in their synagogue was a person possessed by an unclean spirit, which shouted "Jesus what do you want with us, you Nazarene? Have you come to get rid of us? I know you, who you are: God’s holy man."
This verse also shows that the other world is aware of who Jesus is. It also establishes that Jesus speaks on his own Authority. He is generally not shown in this gospel to quote scripture to support his arguments nor to demonstrate that in some way he is fulfilling them.
Jesus seems to distance himself from God when he in Mark 10:18 when he says:
SV Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good except for God alone."
In Mark 2:10-11 he asserts the power to forgive sins:
SV But that you may realize that on earth the son of Adam has authority to forgive sins, he says to the paralytic "you there, get up, pick up your mat and go home!"
In Mark, Jesus never proclaimed his exalted identity; it did not constitute part of his public teaching or preaching. On two occasions, one recorded in Mark 8:27-30 and at the transfiguration vision in Mark 9:7 there is an exchange between Jesus and those he encountered regarding who he was. Both occasions were private, not public, and both were near the end of the ministry:
NIV …."Who do people say I am?" They replied, "Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets." "But what about you?" he asked. "Who do you say I am?" Peter answered, "You are the Christ.]" Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.
Again the Messianic Secret.
NIV Then a cloud appeared and enveloped them, and a voice came from the cloud: "This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!"
A whirlwind tour through Mark would be incomplete without mentioning the primacy in Jesus’ mind of a prayer he probably said every day as a young lad as seen in these verses 12:30-31 of Mark:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.
On two occasions in Mark inclusive of 8:31 Jesus foretold of his death:
NIV He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.
The Gospel of Mark ends with Mark 13:5-8
As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. "Don't be alarmed," he said. "You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, `He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.'" Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
Canonical Mark contains additional verses containing Mark 13:16
NIV Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.
But that verse is a forgery. As a footnote in the NIV says: "The most reliable early manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9-20."
In Mark the proclamation of Jesus’ own identity and of the saving purpose of his death was not the message of Jesus. He did not proclaim himself. Mark’s gospel is about what Jesus voices in the first chapter:
"The time has come," he said. "The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!"