In the third episode of this series “The Words that Make the World“, Archbishop Mark Coleridge looks into how the gospels take shape through Mark as the early Church moves to story.
Episode 3 – How the gospels take shape through Mark – is available here:
Subscribe to our podcast on Apple Podcasts or Spotify streaming platforms to receive each episode directly to your device. You can now also tune into each episode of this podcast on our YouTube channel.
- Episode 3: How the gospels take shape through Mark - Transcript
Episode 3: How the gospels take shape through Mark - TranscriptAuthor: Archdiocese of Brisbane
Welcome back to this next series in the podcasts that are exploring how the New Testament took shape. These texts that we call the New Testament, which are arguably at least the most influential texts that have ever been written. Words that made the world in so many different ways, given the historical influence and impact of Christianity. And given that these texts are the engine of Christianity. We are exploring the most influential and powerful texts that have ever been written.
Now, the question that we concluded with in the last podcast was, why and how did Christianity move from letters, the letters of Saint Paul, to stories, in other words, the Gospels? Because as we’ve seen, the earliest texts in the New Testament were the letters of Paul. Probably the first, almost certainly, I think. The first letter to the Church of Thessalonica written perhaps in about 48 or 49.
So, 15 years or so after the death and resurrection of Jesus. It’s not as if nothing hadn’t been going on in those 15 years. A great deal had been going on, of course, at the level of teaching and preaching and catechesis. And it was that great process of fermentation that honed the texts that will eventually find their way into the stories that we call the gospels.
Now, the answer to the question, of why the early church moved to story? Is found in the question of, why is the whole Bible cast as a story? Because it was a very deliberate decision of our forebears in faith who put the whole Bible together. To cast the whole thing as a story. Not everything in the Bible is narrative or story. But the whole framework is narrative. The whole thing is cast as a story.
In fact, in the Bible, you find every literary form known to the ancient world. So, into this huge grab bag of literary forms, you find a framework that is narrative. It is cast as a story. And the question is, why did they do that? The answer to that question is found if we reflect upon the simpler question of, what is a story? And why is the human being addicted to story? We all are in all kinds of ways. And God understands that. God knows not only that we are addicted to story, but He knows that we need story. So why do we need it?
Now, story in its simplest form has a beginning and end and a middle. No great revelation there. And the art of storytelling is to join the beginning and the end. Neither to simply or predictably, nor in a way that’s too complex and confused. Because if it’s too simple and predictable, the story becomes boring. And I don’t read on. I never make it to the end. If it’s too complex and if it’s too confusing, same effect. I lose interest and I never make it to the end.
The art of storytelling, then, is to strike the right balance between simplicity on the one hand and complexity on the other. So that a good storyteller makes his or her way through all sorts of twists and turns, ups and downs, inside out. And so on. All kinds of complexities. But in the end, there is a kind of resolution. Commonly enough in English, that resolution will take the form of they lived happily ever after. Which is something, by the way, you never find in the Bible, because they never do live happily ever after or not yet.
So, story then, is a journey that has shape and purpose and direction. Through all kinds of confusions and complexities, ins and outs and ups and downs. To a point of resolution at the end. In other words, a story whether the simplest or the most complex. Is a kind of proclamation that the last word belongs not to chaos, but to order.
Now, the deepest human fear, this is you and me. Is that the last word in my life or in the world, in human history, belongs to chaos. Even the chaos of death. And our deepest hope that corresponds to our deepest fear. Our deepest hope is that, in fact, in my life and in the history of the world, the last word will belong not to chaos, although there’s a lot of that, but will in fact belong to order. So, what story does, at a deep level. Is subvert our deepest fear and nourish our deepest hope. And hope is the word to underline. Because the whole Bible is really a proclamation of hope, born always and only out of what seems hopeless.
So, the Bible therefore turns to story in a way that’s accessible to everyone. The great stories of the Bible were not written for experts. They were written for communities that had a bit of everything. So that the stories were written so that everyone would get something, whether the greatest scholar in the world or some child listening to a story. Everyone would get something, but no one would get everything. So, these are community texts. They’re not elite texts. They’re made for everyone. Because everyone needs story, because everyone needs the kind of hope that story feeds.
Now, to understand why primitive Christianity then obeys the deepest impulse of the Scripture. You have to ask yourself about the experience of what seemed to be chaos or hopelessness in the early church. And to find that kind of thing in the experience of the early church, again, these texts, none of the texts of the New Testament are ivory tower texts. They’re written to meet real and urgent human need and to answer deep and urgent human questions. That was true of them back then, and it’s no less true of them now. The first of the gospels to emerge was the Gospel of Mark. Now, keep in mind, too, that the form of the Gospel is a literary form, a kind of text that the world had never really seen.
The Gospels have antecedents in ancient literature. But there’s nothing quite like the gospel before it. Now, this is because the gospel stories are seeking to recount a unique event, something that had never happened. That God had taken flesh, become one of us. That God had died, that this God with us, Jesus had died the most shameful death known to the ancient world on a cross. And that this God with us, Jesus, had been raised from the dead in the most extraordinary and unexpected way. To recount that kind of story required another kind of form. You couldn’t just rely on what was conventional to describe something that was so radically unconventional. So, the world had never seen anything quite like what we call the gospels.
Now, the Gospel of Mark was written almost certainly in the late sixties, probably in Rome. Now you have to ask yourself what was happening at that time in Rome and in the community, the church in Rome. The church in Rome, we don’t know who exactly founded it. It was founded very early, and it wasn’t founded by Saint Peter or Saint Paul. They end up in Rome and they die in Rome. But they weren’t the founders of the Roman Church. It may well be that Jews from Rome, and there was a large Jewish community in Rome. Had gone to Jerusalem for what we call the first Pentecost. The Feast of Weeks, as the Jewish people would call it. That they went there for the Jewish celebration, and there they heard the primitive preaching of the first Christian Pentecost. And therefore found their way into the encounter with the risen Christ. In that sense, they became Christian without ever ceasing to be Jewish. And then they returned to Rome after their pilgrimage, and they become the seed of the Roman Church. Which for a very long time had a strongly Jewish Christian character.
So, this community, established early, grew in strength. But then when Nero becomes emperor. There is a moment in their life, the like of which they had never experienced before. Because what happens, and the story is well known. That Nero decides to use the Christian community in Rome as a scapegoat for the Great Fire that destroyed much of the city. And which Nero himself may have in some sense lit. That was widely rumoured. And there are there are possible reasons to support the claim that it was the emperor himself who was responsible for the destruction.
So, to deflect blame from himself. He finds the church, the Christian community in Rome, a convenient scapegoat. So, there is a kind of persecution, the like of which Christians had never seen before. There may well have been, not so much in Rome perhaps, but elsewhere. Sporadic persecutions. But nothing, nothing like the persecutions under the emperor Nero. Because under Nero, being Christian became like being Jewish under Nazi Germany. You didn’t have to do anything against the law, just by being born Jewish or being Christian. You became liable to capital punishment. If just being Jewish in Nazi Germany or being Christian in Nero’s Rome was itself a capital offense. And some of the modes of punishment were, to put it mildly, atrocious. Without going into the detail here.
So here you had a community of believers, flesh and blood, just like you and me. These were not superman and superwoman. They were ordinary human beings who had found their way to Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. And in the encounter with him, they had heard a great promise. And the promise was of peace, an endless life, and a joy that nothing could destroy or contain. So, the promise was great, and the experience was powerful.
Now, however, what they’re finding is that being Christian is going to cost them their life. They can hear the lions roaring in the background. They’re being fed to the lions for lunch. Now, in this situation, the question is, what might you or I or they do? And the answer is they might decide that this wasn’t the deal. I’m out of here. This wasn’t the promise that I was going to cop this, you know, the horrors of Nero’s persecution.
So, the whole Roman community is at a point where it’s threatened with breaking apart, completely collapse. Now it’s that new and dramatic circumstance, it seems to me, and to many. It’s that new and dramatic circumstance where it really was a question of life and death for the Roman church. That the evangelist, whom we call Mark, takes up his pen and begins to write a story that will change the world.
He writes it in Greek, though it’s clearly not his mother tongue. It’s a fairly simple, even at times crude Greek that is being written by someone whose mother tongue was a Semitic language. In other words, it’s a very heavily Semitic kind of Greek. And Mark is one of the texts that you use if you’re teaching beginner’s Greek, as I did for some years. Because the Greek is simple, it’s a good place to start.
So, he begins. A beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Very simple words, but words that will eventually change the world. Now, we call the author of this extraordinary text, which is no longer than a short story by the way. We call this author Mark. And that’s a fairly ancient tradition. The names of all the evangelists go back to the very early times of Christianity.
However, the texts themselves are anonymous texts. And if we could just dwell for a moment on the question of, why are they anonymous? And this is true of the texts of the Old Testament too, for the most part. You get certain texts of the Old Testament, like the book of Jeremiah, that are certainly not anonymous. They have the name of the Prophet. But many of the greatest texts of the Old Testament, one thinks of the great stories of Genesis, for instance, which are works of literature, of the grandeur of Shakespeare, for instance. But we don’t know who wrote them. And much of their art was used to conceal their identity. They didn’t want you to know who they were. And this is true of the evangelists, too. And keep in mind, the only Bible that they ever knew was what we call the Old Testament.
So, the evangelists who write these gospels we call Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Didn’t want you really to know who they are. And there’s a very good reason for that, it’s what they call a rhetoric of divine glorification. In the Old Testament, the authors are saying, don’t look at me, don’t start focusing on me. Focus on the God I’m seeking to glorify. And in the gospels, the evangelists are saying, don’t focus on me, don’t worry about who I am, and expend all your energy on trying to discover my identity. Focus upon the Jesus I’m seeking to glorify. So self-concealment is an attempt to deflect attention away from themselves towards the one they are seeking to glorify.
So, we have anonymous texts. But in fact, if you read between the lines and read with a sharp and well-trained eye. You can have some sense of who the author was and what the circumstances were in which he wrote. Presumably whoever wrote these gospels, they were male, though there have been some suggestions that the Gospel of Luke might have had a woman’s hand somewhere involved in the process. Let’s not go down that path because it takes you nowhere. So, the gospel, the text is here in all its concreteness, whatever about the identity of the author.
Now, Mark tells a story of fear and failure, that sounds odd. Because he says it right at the start, as we’ve seen, a beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ. But in fact, as the story then unfolds, it seems to be bad news. So, one of the questions that’s posed immediately is, is this good news or bad news? Well, if it’s good news, it’s very good, it’s good news of a very unusual kind. So how do we distinguish good news and bad news? Keeping in mind that the Roman community is going through an experience that seems to be the worst of bad news.
So, the question that Mark poses immediately to the Roman community and to us is, is this good news or bad news? Is this death or is this life? It seems death, but might it in fact be birth? And if you can’t distinguish between death and birth, death and life, between good news and bad news, you’re caught up in a most fundamental contradiction. So that’s the question that this story poses. It tells a story of what seems to be bad news, but is, in fact, Mark says, good news. So, here again, the gospel, the first of the gospels written is a journey out of the world of what seems to be, the world of illusion. Into the world of what is. The whole Bible seeks to lead us on that journey. And you see one instance of it in this first gospel where the church turns from letter to story.
Now, the experience of persecution under Nero seemed to swamp the whole community in chaos. Where is the shape, the purpose, the direction in all of this? And here again, story, which talks about shape and purpose and direction. Heading towards a resolution. Says to the community. In fact, though, all seems to be chaotic under the pressure of this persecution. There is, in fact, for those with the right eye to see, there is in fact, a shape, a purpose and direction. Where is God in the midst of this? God is here. You are not abandoned. You need an eye that sees in the darkness. And you will acquire that kind of eye if you read this story.
So, in that sense, the story that Mark tells is intended to be what William Blake, the poet, would call, a cleansing of the doors of perception. So that you acquire a kind of night vision. A capacity to see in the darkness. And just to discover the presence of God where you thought God was completely and utterly absent. Now, the story that he tells. The story that he tells is really, it’s a long prologue or build up towards the story of the passion.
It’s often been said of Mark’s gospel that it’s a passion narrative, the death of Jesus. It’s a passion narrative with a long introduction. And in many ways that is true. And what he’s doing is he’s saying to the community in Rome, if you want to understand what you are experiencing, you better understand what happened on Calvary. Because what you are living, in fact, is the Calvary experience.
You have to understand that the death of Jesus on the cross, it was an atrocious death. It seemed to be the victory of violence and chaos. But in fact, it was life, not death. It was birth. And it was the birth of a kind of light at the heart of darkness. So, you will only learn to understand and interpret your experience of persecution under Nero if you interpret it in the light of the cross of Jesus. The cross of Jesus isn’t once upon a time. It’s here and now, and that’s what you’re experiencing. So, in fact, this persecution is a kind of birth. The church is being born. And out of this kind of proclamation, the church came to see eventually and fairly early. That the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church, not the death of the church.
Now, at the very end of Mark’s gospel. In fact, it’s not an ending because Mark’s gospel doesn’t end. More of which perhaps as we move through these podcasts. But the women go to the tomb, we’re told to anoint the body. And when they get there, they see the tomb has, the stone’s been rolled away, and they are met by a heavenly messenger who gives them a very precise instruction. Go and tell his disciples and Peter that he’s going before you to Galilee. There you will see him as he told you. Okay, so that’s very clear. The instruction these women are given right at the end of Mark’s gospel. But then what do we find? The women went out and they fled from the tomb. For trembling in astonishment had come upon them and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. Full stop. That’s where the story stops, it doesn’t end. So, we end with fear and failure. Why, because that was exactly the experience of the Roman church. Fear and failure. So, every community has to deal with that experience of fear and failure.
In that sense, Mark’s story rubs our nose in the fact of our fear and our failure. But what this non ending of the first gospel implies is that eventually the women move beyond their fear and failure. Because how else would we have the story? They must have recovered from the paralysis that fear and failure bring upon us. To tell the story and to do what they were asked. Because how else would we have this particular story?
So, you see that Christianity therefore, turns to story in a moment of dramatic need. When the church in Rome is facing life or death. And looks to the cross of Jesus as the only key to an understanding of what’s happening. Now, this text, this story was so powerful in the Roman church that it began to do the rounds. Again, it was passed from community to community in the Mediterranean world and far, far beyond and down through time. Why? Because every Christian community we have come to see has to deal with this experience of fear and failure. And every Christian community has to look to the cross of Jesus as the only way we will ever understand the darkness and suffering that come upon us.
That’s the first of these stories. The question is, why then do we have Matthew, Luke and John? Why didn’t we just continue to read this extraordinary story with such power, the Gospel of Mark? And that’s the question to which we’ll turn in the next of these podcasts.