Dr Peter Lewis has kindly offered a further reflection on Mark’s gospel following a very interesting seminar he recently conducted for the PCNQ in Brisbane.
MARK’S GOSPEL A New Appraisal by Peter E. Lewis
Having read Mark’s gospel in a critical way I have come to the conclusion that it is essentially true. It could well have been largely what Mark remembered of Peter’s preaching in Rome. It is the story of an extraordinary man, and it was told honestly by the original author within the limits of his time and pre-scientific world-view. Although the original text was interfered with in many ways, it can be reconstructed fairly easily. The most drastic interference was the removal of the beginning and the ending as explained in my book The Ending of Mark’s Gospel: The Key to Understanding the Gospels and Christianity. But there were other significant interferences which I would like to point out.
In Mark 8:35 Jesus says, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.” A number of ancient manuscripts (including Papyrus 45 from the 3rd century and Codex Bezae) do not have ‘for me and’ in the text, and in the Greek New Testament published by the United Bible Societies it is stated that there is considerable doubt whether ‘for me and’ should be in the text. If the words are removed, Jesus says what is consistent with what he says all along in this gospel, that his mission is about the coming of the Kingdom of God. It is not primarily about himself although he does, of course, play the main role.
As Christianity spread and grew among the Gentiles in the Roman Empire the focus moved onto Jesus himself as a sort of semi-divine figure like Hercules and the other heroes of Greco-Roman religion who were conceived by a god impregnating a mortal woman, and when Matthew and Luke copied the information from Mark’s gospel they changed Jesus’ statement in Mark 8:35 so that ‘for the gospel’ was omitted. In their gospels the Christian loses his life for Jesus. It is the reverse of the situation in Mark’s gospel.
Mark 1:1, ‘The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God’, was obviously inserted by whoever removed the beginning of Mark’s gospel because it contradicts what Jesus says in Mark 1:15, that the gospel (the good news) is about the Kingdom of God being near. But what is the Kingdom of God? The answer is in Mark 12:29-34. When Jesus says to love God and neighbour, and a scribe agrees with him, Jesus goes on to say that the scribe is not far from the Kingdom of God: he is almost there. So the Kingdom of God is an ethical matter. It is about how we conduct our lives.
When Jesus speaks about love (Greek: agape) he means a self-giving concern for others, and this is what Jesus represents. He gives himself by healing and forgiving people and accepting everyone. But more than this: he gives himself to bring in the Kingdom of God. When he makes his triumphant entry into Jerusalem and disrupts the business in the Temple, he is provoking the authorities to kill him, but before they do he has a final meal with his followers. Jesus is the Love that is at the heart of it all.
Another significant interference in Mark’s gospel is in Mark 14:27-31 where Jesus tells the disciples that they will all fall away and be scattered like sheep, but Peter says he will not fall away. To anyone reading this passage, verse 28 (But after I am raised up I will go ahead of you into Galilee) seems out of place. It supports the disciples and looks like an insertion by a pro-Peter group. That this is the case is confirmed by the absence of the verse in the Fayyum Fragment, which is from the 3rd century and is the only papyrus manuscript with the text of Mark’s gospel after Chapter 12.
Mark 14:28 is significant because with 16:7 there are only two places where it is stated that Jesus will go ahead of the disciples into Galilee after he has been raised. Mark 16:7 has therefore been seen as confirming the prediction made in 14:28, but if Mark 14:28 is a later insertion, 16:7 must be critically considered in isolation.
Mark 16:7 is what the man in the tomb said to the women. He told them to tell Jesus’ followers to return to Galilee. If the Jewish authorities had removed Jesus’ body to prevent the site becoming a rallying point for his followers this is what the man would have said. The frightened women misunderstood him and the rest is history.
Actually the most important interference with Mark’s gospel was the removal of the ending that Mark originally wrote. It corresponds (with some modifications) to 16:9-20 in most modern versions. In 16:15 Jesus tells the disciples to preach the good news, and this must surely be that the Kingdom of God has come. In Mark 16:19 Jesus is lifted up to sit at the right hand of God, which is what he said to the high priest in 14:62. So the ending of Mark’s gospel is about exaltation. The model that Jesus provided (loving, forgiving, healing) is to be followed by those entering the Kingdom of God. It is the way they should conduct themselves. Then God will rule in their lives.
Jesus’ exaltation in Mark 16:19 following the crucifixion refers back to the Transfiguration in 9:1-10. There Jesus is glorified on a mountain between Elijah and Moses, but at the end of Mark’s gospel he is lifted up and glorified on the cross between two robbers (Mark 15:27). After both of these events his followers say nothing to anyone until after he has risen. (Mark 9:10 and 16:8).
The Transfiguration in turn refers back to Exodus 19 when Moses brings the people to meet with God. They stand at the foot of the mountain and God descends on it in fire. Then God speaks the Ten Commandments. In Exodus 19:16 God descends on the morning of the third day, and in Mark 16:9 it is early on the third day after the crucifixion that Jesus appears. Jesus has come down from the cross and the people meet with God in a spiritual way in Christ.
A careful reading of Mark’s gospel shows that it is very profound. To understand it you should go as far as you can using the God-given gift of reason. Then you will find that your faith is strengthened. Go beyond the exorcisms and miracles and read it in a realistic way with faith, and, like the scribe in Mark 12:34, you will be almost there.