The Gospel Context

Though Mark is placed second in the lineup of gospels, most modern scholars recognize it as the earliest that was written. In composing his gospel, Mark probably drew from a collection of sayings and stories that, for forty years, circulated orally among the early church community. At some point, the decision was made to consolidate and preserve this material in narrative form. The work we now know as the Gospel of Mark was completed just after the Romans sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the temple in 70 AD. Matthew and Luke-Acts later used Mark as the basis for their gospels. John was developed from different sources. Since the earliest versions of all the gospels claimed no authorship, we do not know who actually wrote them.  

  A written account of the teachings and meaning of Jesus would solidify and imbue the orally transmitted story with the stamp of authority. Rather than speculate on what someone had heard, the sect of Judaism known as the followers of the Way (Acts 9:1-2) could now point to an actual document that not only set the record straight, it was the record. But it was intended to be more than just an official accounting. Among scholars, it is widely accepted that the authors of the gospels were neither historians nor biographers. They were evangelists. As such, they took great liberties with historical facts, sayings attributed to Jesus, and essentially invented the narrative itself. Addressing the pressing current issues of their day, they used the figure of Jesus and the power of storytelling to advance the popular understanding of what he had come to represent to a devastated people who had lost their leader, and now the Temple, the very heart of the Jewish universe.

Those who believed Jesus was the expected Messiah had many questions that demanded answers. Things had gone from bad to worse. If he was truly the Messiah, why did he not put the enemies of Israel beneath their feet? Why were these Roman heathens allowed to continue killing disciples and prominent leaders such as Peter, James, and Paul? Where was this kingdom the Messiah was supposed to usher in? With Jerusalem and the Temple now laying in smoldering ruins by Roman hands, the time was ripe for some clear cut answers.

For these reasons, the original meanings of Jesus’ sayings are often distorted or obscured by the evangelist’s storytelling. Under the circumstances, it was not their intention to convey the message Jesus actually presented. To do so, they would be looking to the past. They needed his help now. They needed the hope that only he, with the guidance of the struggling leadership, could inspire. Mark was the one to consolidate and deliver the basic narrative that would become the synoptic template for the good news. John would draw from other sources thirty years later.

Jesus with Clueless Nicodemus

An important issue to consider is whether the gospel writers grasped the mystical aspect of Jesus’ message. The validity of posing this question is justified on the basis that enough of the mystical thread survives to assume it was an important aspect, if not the entire thrust of Jesus’ original message. Here is another example found in the Gospel of Thomas: 

Jesus said, “If your leaders say to you, ‘Look, the (Father’s) kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is within you and it is outside you. When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you live in poverty, and you are the poverty.”

Thomas 3

Today’s mainstream Christian looks to the return of Jesus and the literal establishment of God’s kingdom. Though the notion of an inner kingdom that cannot be observed with the eye runs counter to this view, it is a cornerstone of all mystical traditions. The point of contact with this kingdom of God, the spiritual source of every person, is found at the core of the individual. The above passage is well aligned with this foundational principle. To come to know the truth of one’s spiritual source is the key to liberation from the false perceptual restrictions that bind so many of us.   

Jerusalem Sacked, 70 A.D.

It is vital to understand that over the four decades since Jesus’ execution, there were dramatic developments in circumstances. Mark is not writing to the world Jesus lived in. The relative peace of Jesus’ day would have been much more conducive to an inner-directed teaching. It is possible that the evangelists understood the mystical aspects of the original teachings, but for reasons already mentioned, made the decision to not give it the attention Jesus intended. Why would they do this? If he spoke of the kingdom in terms of an inner dimension, as I believe he did, such a message, under the dire circumstances of their day, would seem impotent, an impractical abstraction that would do little to defeat the very real enemy. Mark, after all, made its debut in the midst of a very bloody revolution. Would the idea of an inner kingdom of God seem practical when an overthrow of Roman power was the obvious solution? Both Christians and Jews were under savage attack by the Romans. Church leaders were being put to death. To ensure the survival of the Jesus movement, the message the leadership knew their audience needed and wanted to hear was that the Messiah, Jesus, had indeed been here and he would soon return. And when he returned, he would defeat the tyranny and horror of oppression and destroy these enemies of God. This business about an inner kingdom simply would not carry the weight or inspire the hope that the promise of an imminent overthrow would provide.   

We can deduce with relative certainty the various audiences and political climates of the four evangelist. However, we can never really know what was in the minds and hearts of those responsible for producing the gospels. What we do know is, like a scattering of jewels, fragments of the mystical element survive, not necessarily by design, but because any one of these collected sayings were likely considered too precious to discard. In creating their accounts, the authors did their best to incorporate all material at their disposal, tweaking the context to align with their own narrative. Luke’s use of the passage on the kingdom within (Luke 17:20-21) is a case in point. He seems to have simply copied and pasted it into a spot where it could fit. Remove it and there is no interruption to the flow of the narrative. This suggests to scholars that this was an independent saying that Luke utilized. Again, the gospel writer’s primary purpose was not to present an accurate historical or biographical account of the life and teaching of Jesus. Their purpose was to advance the story that would inspire the most hope within their own Christian community.

Mark, a Collaborative Effort?

Let us return to Mark, the first gospel to appear. There is general agreement among scholars that Mark was written in Rome, though Galilee, Antioch, and southern Syria have also been suggested. Regardless of where it was written, considering the evangelical nature of the work, I believe the case can be made that Mark was not written by a cloistered scribe working alone in the dim light of an oil lamp. Rather, Mark is the product of a collaborative effort. The image of Jesus that emerges in this gospel is not random. In addition to matching the common Jesus lore of the day, it also aligns with Old Testament prophecy. Its creation would have required considerable research, substantial knowledge of the scriptures, and, in all likelihood, a consensus of agreement among the leadership. Like Paul, the leaders of the Jewish-Christian community in Rome may have employed a scribe to commit their narrative to written form, but it would be they, not the scribe, who would oversee its final draft. The input of multiple contributors may also factor into Mark’s anonymity.

Why this collected material was converted into narrative form and appeared at the time that it did suggests how this conversion may have occurred. As we have seen, the story of Jesus had been circulating orally for forty years. The fluid nature of oral transmission raises the possibility that even before Mark reached its earliest publishable form, the story of Jesus had drifted in meaning to a condition that Jesus himself would not recognize. In addition, multiple versions of an orally transmitted message were being told. The early church leaders probably felt an urgency to resolve this dilemma via published text.

Luke would later address this problem in the preface of his two-volume account, Luke-Acts. He is writing to Theophilus, a character unknown to us, but possibly a wealthy patron who sponsored Luke’s work. 

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed.

Luke 1:1-3

Luke is referring to written narratives, undoubtedly including the Gospel of Mark, which, as we have seen, he used as the basis of his gospel. This was long before intellectual property became a consideration and plagiarism was an accepted practice. The creators of Mark would have been concerned with the variations of stories being told. In Mark’s day, an officially sanctioned guiding document, the first of its kind, would have established a solid, powerful, authorized account.

From a psychological standpoint, I can see Matthew and Luke having advantages that make it easier to attribute a single author to their works. Both are more skilled in the craft of writing, bringing finer detail to their scenes and transitions. Luke-Acts reads like a novel of the period. Mark’s lack of detail and its rapid-fire presentation in general – fifteen scene changes in the first chapter alone – gives it the feel of collective authorship not wanting to get lost in the weeds of detail. Unlike Mark, Matthew and Luke were not burdened by the more difficult task of invention. That they used Mark as their prototype is a clear indication that, whether or not Mark agreed with Jesus, this gospel was sanctioned by the leadership of the Christian community. This was the official direction for Jesus they had decided to take. Yes, there would have been plenty of editorial hurdles for Matthew and Luke to clear, but building their narratives from scratch was not one of them.

4 Source Theory

Matthew and Luke also had the benefit of scrutinizing Mark for flaws and omissions, like a birth story and post-resurrection appearances. Armed with this information, and additional material not available to the creators of Mark (Q Source, and material specific to Matthew (M) and Luke (L)), these two authors could provide fuller accounts that further clarified the narrative as a whole. Because Matthew, Mark and Luke draw from common sources and represent a similar point of view, they are referred to as the synoptic Gospels. John, which surfaced some years after Matthew and Luke, presents a unique picture of Jesus derived from different sources. Despite their many differences, however, all four gospels reflect a similar meaning of the life and death of Jesus, a meaning that had circulated widely and has since served as the distinguishing basis of the mainstream Christian faith. That said, it should be understood that these separate accounts were never intended to be placed side-by-side as the scriptural basis for a developing religion. Each author had their specific purpose and audience in mind.  

In the case of Mark, is it reasonable to think the collection of parables, stories, and possibly written snippets of the oral tradition had fallen into the control of  a single writer? It would seem that any collection of such valuable material, well-known within the Christian community, would be held for safekeeping by designated and trusted members of the leadership. If they did pass it to a scribe, I am inclined to think it was by design. In its piecemeal form, this material would leave too much to the interpretive imagination. What was needed was a clear guiding document, developed and approved by those who were in the best position to help forge it. And what document could be better than an authorized, fleshed-out account of the good news, the life and teachings of the Son of God?

Image of 12 Disciples From the Didache

As a final point to my hypothesis of collective authorship, we assume that documents like The Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed were also anonymous but likely written by a group of men. Another document, the Didache, appeared about the same time as Mark, though not related. Regarded by some scholars as an early form of catechism, the Didache provided guidelines to Christian ethics, rituals, and church organization. Reading through it (you can find the full text online), it is difficult to imagine a single author creating such a guiding document. While the Didache focuses on ritual and proper Christian behavior, Mark’s focus is on the correct way to think of Jesus. Considering the importance of the early church establishing a unified front, it stands to reason that the notable players in leadership would be closely involved in the creation of all defining documents, if not as actual authors, in the very least as key members of the ancient equivalent to the editorial board.

Why would this matter? It would explain how and why the original message of Jesus could be transformed from a mystical, inner-directed teaching to the hope of a futuristic kingdom announced by the anticipated second coming of Jesus. It would also give a plausible explanation of why Matthew and Luke had the confidence to use Mark as their basis, and why John considered its characterization of the life and death of Jesus as worthy of his own adoption. To me, critical scholarship is liberating, but it does not give us license to be irresponsible. This is why I am presenting this idea as a reasonable explanation of how we could have a dual message – one from the church, the other from Jesus – in a single body we know as the canonical gospels and the New Testament as a whole.

4 thoughts on “The Gospel Context

  1. Do you think that Jesus could read and write? It is said that he sat in the temple and discussed the Jewish scriptures with learned men, so maybe he could, but chose not to write his teachings (because the people could not read.)

  2. Thank you for this informative post. It is worth noting that even the disciples, who had been in Jesus’s company during his three years of ministry, were often confused as to who he was and what his message was. Concerning the Jewish scriptures, of which Jesus was well versed from an early age, the disciples needed to have them ‘opened’ (explained) to them, indicating they should not be taken literally as there was hidden meaning in them. Even the parables indicate this. The early church tried to separate out the most important from the many. As you have noted, they most likely colored them with their own agenda as they were written long after Jesus’s death, those who are thought to have authored were long gone, nor did Jesus leave any written doctrine. Spiritual discernment separates the wheat from the chaff and his most important advice seems to be, ‘what is that to you, follow me.’

    1. As always, thank you for your comment. For those interested in exploring Christian origins beyond what they learned in Bible School, there is a lot of great information available.

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