Posts Tagged ‘Gospel of Mark’

We all know the Christmas story, although there are a number of elements that we commonly associate with it that we probably shouldn’t. Some of these include:

Jesus was born on December 25. Actually, nowhere in the Bible are we given the date of Jesus’ birth, and shepherds would not likely have been in the fields in late December. The truth is we can’t even be certain of the year.

The manger scene as we normally picture it is almost certainly not accurate. There were no “inns” as we know the term today. Actually the word commonly translated as “inn” is only used two other times in the New Testament in Mark 14:14 and its parallel passage, Luke 22:11. There it refers to the room where Jesus and His disciples had the Last Supper. Jesus may even have been born in a house that took Joseph and Mary in. In the ancient world animals were often kept within the house, sometimes on the first floor while the family slept on a second floor. So, if there was no room on the second floor, Joseph and Mary may have been placed with the animals on the first floor. The point is that the cute little manger scene probably does not reflect what really happened.

The wise men were not there. Luke says nothing about wise men; that account is found in Matthew. The Magi as the Greek refers to them (we get the word “magic” from the name) were probably astrologers. That’s why the star meant something to them. And the wise men find Joseph, Mary, and Jesus living in a house in Bethlehem. Matthew says nothing about them coming from Nazareth.

The visit of the wise men may have been when Jesus was two years old. Matthew has Herod killing all male children two years and under. In the tiny village of Bethlehem Herod would have killed at most a dozen children, not enough to merit a place in history. Herod was known for doing much worse.

I am not attempting to discourage our traditions. Traditions can be powerful expressions of faith and meaning. I just thought it might be interesting to consider some of the questions that can be applied to what we have come to call “the Christmas story.”

We also tend to picture Christmas in one of two ways. We may remember Christmas from our childhood—for some of us quite long ago. The other picture has been implanted in our minds by Charles Dickens. Because of his famous story, A Christmas Carol, our minds almost unconsciously bring up images of Victorian England.

Nothing is wrong with either of these images; I tend to use them as well. At the same time, we should recognize that Christmas is not exclusively American or European. The message of Christmas is for all people in all ages. Below is a page from the Codex Vaticanus, showing what we have come to label as Luke 2:4—29. This early manuscript of course has neither chapters nor verses. It dates to approximately AD 325. Actually, the earliest manuscript that contains this story is p45 and it dates from about AD 225, a hundred years earlier than the Vaticanus.

Luke 2 Vaticanus

I would suggest that as we  look at the page from the Vaticanus, we pause to remember two things. First of all, the Christmas story is not a Victorian invention. As much as we may have buried its message in commercialism, it is still a part of the Christian message that goes back to the time Luke was originally written.

Also, Christmas is not an invention of Western culture. While it is meaningful to us, it is just as much for all people in all times. The story of Christmas is after all a message of hope and redemption, and all of us need that in some way.

While the King James Version may not be the best translation of the Greek text, its message has resonated for centuries, and it still speaks to us today. I leave you with it, just as it was spelled in the 1611 version.

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good wil towards men.

And don’t forget to listen to this version of the Christmas story.


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The ending of Mark is perhaps the most significant textual question in the New Testament. It is important for two reasons. First, there is real doubt as to how the gospel originally ended. Also, it is a significant message. This is the type of issue that troubles people. Let’s look at it.

Most modern translations raise some kind of question about Mark 16:9-20. They may also include what is referred to as the shorter ending, which reads in the NAS Revised Edition, “And they promptly reported all these instructions to Peter and his companions. And after that, Jesus Himself sent out through them from east to west the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.”

So, there are four possibilities:

  1. Mark originally ended with the shorter ending.
  2. Mark originally ended with the longer ending (vv. 9-20).
  3. Mark originally contained another ending which was lost before it could be copied.
  4. Mark originally ended after verse 8.

Let’s eliminate the first possibility immediately. It isn’t natural. It even sounds like something tacked on, because a scribe did not find the ending satisfactory. Greek manuscripts that contain it date from the 7th to the 9th centuries or later, although an Old Latin and other less significant versions (translations) include it. But, overall, this shorter ending has very little to support it.

Could the gospel have ended as we have it with verses 9-20? Yes, that is a possibility, although I have to admit I don’t think it likely, even though there are a very large number of manuscripts and versions that support it.  Several 5th century manuscripts include it, along with virtually all the later manuscripts, as well as the earliest manuscript of the Old Latin, Latin Vulgate, one Old Syriac Version, the Syriac Peshitta, and a number of other versions. Irenaeus, one of the church Fathers, refers to the longer ending, which shows that it existed in the 2nd century and that Mark was believed to be the author. That sounds impressive, so what’s the problem?

In an earlier post, we talked about the three most significant manuscripts we have of the New Testament. Two of these, the Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus date from AD 325-350). Whenever these manuscripts agree scholars consider that to be significant. And neither of these manuscripts includes verses 9-20. These verses are also absent from the earliest Old Latin manuscripts, about 100 Armenian manuscripts, the two oldest Georgian manuscripts, as well as other versions.

Among the church fathers, Clement of Alexandria and Origen show no knowledge of the existence of these verses. Eusebius and Jerome acknowledge that it was absent from almost all Greek copies of Mark known to them. Finally, many of the manuscripts that do contain verses 9-20 are marked with notations indicating that it was questionable as to whether the passage should be included.

Finally, we must consider the possibility that the original ending of Mark was lost before it could be copied. While that is a real possibility, it is somewhat unlikely. The original was probably written on a scroll, rather than a codex. While the last leaf of a codex could be torn off, the ending of a scroll is harder to lose.

One quick message of reassurance. If we eliminate verses 9-20, we have not lost what is commonly referred to as “the Great Commission.” It is contained in virtually the same words in Matthew 28, and there are no textual issues relating to Matthew’s version at all.

I tend toward believing that Mark ended his gospel with verse 8. While that may seem to be an unusual ending, it has literary value. The rest of the story would likely have been known by most of Mark’s readers, but by ending it abruptly at verse 8, Mark forces us to ask ourselves the question, “How will I write the ending for myself? How will I respond to the events as described? Will I respond with faith or with doubt and confusion? I can’t say whether Mark deliberately set out to pose these questions, but they are there, nonetheless, and I must admit that I am intrigued by the literary value of this ending. Mark leaves us with an empty tomb, but with the disciples afraid and not sure what to do. I can identify with that. Can’t you?

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First of all, a special thank you to Barry Jones for alerting me to this information. In February of this year (2012) Professor Daniel Wallace of the Dallas Theological Seminary announced the discovery of fragments of manuscripts containing some books of the New Testament that may be earlier than any existing manuscripts. While comparisons to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls are certainly premature, if the initial claims for these manuscripts turn out to be true, such an analogy could turn out to be not far from wrong.

Okay, after all the hyperbole, let me begin with a word of caution. Before we can say anything about this discovery with any degree of certainty, we must allow several scholars to authenticate the manuscripts and especially to establish their date. Dr. Wallace has indicated that it may be a year or more before the details of the manuscripts will be revealed. While certainly I am anxious to find out more, I applaud the caution in such an approach. What we are talking about now are first indications. It’s okay to get excited, but let’s also realize that it is simply too early to make any extravagant claims. With that warning, let me summarize what the early findings indicate.

Seven papyri containing portions of the New Testament have been discovered in Egypt, six of them probably date from the second century; however, one of the manuscripts may actually go back to the first century. The potentially first century manuscript is from the Gospel of Mark. This would make it the earliest New Testament manuscript in existence, supplanting p52 which is a fragment of the Gospel of John, dating from the first half of the second century. Now this fragment of Mark probably only contains a very few verses; however, a first century date would truly be significant. Almost all of the earliest manuscripts we have were discovered in Egypt, because the hot, dry climate makes it more conducive to preserving ancient papyrus. Having a first century manuscript from Egypt also implies that the original must have been written early enough for copies to be made and find their way to Egypt. This may have implications for the remaining six manuscripts as well.

One of the other second century manuscripts contains portions of the gospel of Luke. This would make it the earliest manuscript of that gospel.

We have four manuscripts that contain portions of the letters of Paul. While I wish Dr. Wallace had revealed which letters are included, he wisely chose not to do that at this time. If I read his interview correctly, one of these letters might be Hebrews which was often included in early collections of the writings of Paul.

The final manuscript is not actually from a New Testament book. Rather, it is an ancient homily, dating from the second century, based on the book of Hebrews, chapter 11. This is significant, because it would indicate that in the second century the writer of the homily considered the book of Hebrews to be authoritative, and it would also imply that Hebrews was originally written early enough for it to circulate and obtain a degree of acceptance by the second century.

So there it is. You know what I know. Let me repeat what I said at the beginning. It is too early to accept these claims as is, although Dr. Wallace emphasizes that the manuscripts have been examined by one of the leading paleographers with an outstanding reputation. If I discover any more data to either authenticate or refute this information, I will include it in later posts. For now, it’s exciting to think about, but we will have to allow scholars to do their work.

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While we can never be certain about the authorship of the gospel of Mark, we can and should consider the evidence and come to a conclusion, even if it is a tentative one.

We can say with some confidence that the gospel was written no later than AD 70 and possibly as early as 60. It is therefore within the lifetime of people who had known Jesus. We also know that in the early second century Papias attributed the authorship to a man named Mark and said that he received his information from the apostle Peter.

I see no compelling reason to deny that someone named Mark wrote the gospel that bears his name. the titles to all four of our gospels go back as far as any of the manuscript evidence we have, and there exists no reason to question that it reflects a tradition older than our manuscripts. None of the ancient writings contest the authors of the gospels. Also, while Mark is a common name, there would seem to be little reason for someone to write the gospel and attach the name of Mark to it. There was no apostle named Mark. Indeed, the name is so obscure that we cannot say for certain to whom it refers. Therefore, it appears reasonable to assume that someone named Mark wrote the gospel attributed to him.

But who was Mark? Ah, that is a question that has fascinated Christians throughout the centuries. My conclusion (as I have already stated) is that we cannot know for certain. While recognizing that limitation, I would like to consider one possibility and the implications for the gospel of Mark if it is true.

The only Mark we know about in the New Testament is a man named John Mark. We talked about him in the previous post. At the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, Mark would probably have been either a child or a teenager. Dating is uncertain, but by the time he has his confrontation with Paul in Acts 15.37-39 he was likely a young man. From what we read in Acts 12, he was living in Jerusalem.

There is a tradition that the Last Supper took place at the home of Mark’s parents. While most traditions having to do with locations should be dismissed as legends, an article some years ago in Biblical Archaeology Review actually supported the traditional location of the site of the Last Supper (although the building there dates from much later). I am setting you up to consider one specific incident in Mark.

The gospel of Mark is noted for being short and lacking in details; however, it contains a story that is found in none of the other gospels. In Mark 14.51-52 we read of a young man in the Garden of Gethsemane who loses his garment in his rush to get away from the soldiers sent to arrest Jesus. Earlier commentaries speculated that this was the gardener, who had come to see what the commotion was about. This seems unlikely. After all, he would have a legitimate reason to be there and should be in no danger. The question arises. What if this is Mark himself? Is it possible that Mark (and only Mark) inserts this story, because it was so important to him?

All this is speculation certainly, but it raises an intriguing possible answer to a question that I have never heard asked. If no one was awake in the Garden of Gethsemane, how do we know what Jesus prayed? Yes, I know He could have revealed that information after His resurrection, but we don’t see Jesus doing that in other respects.

We need to understand that in the ancient world, people did not read silently, nor did they pray silently. So, if Jesus was praying, He was probably praying aloud. What if the young Mark was disturbed when soldiers came to the Upper Room. He might have gone out to warn Jesus. Finding Jesus praying alone, Mark would have heard His words and recorded them for us.

I must admit this is all highly speculative, but it is intriguing to think about it, and it helps bring the story alive in ways that a dry study never could. Did John Mark write the gospel that bears his name? I do not know. I do believe it is possible, and I tend to think so.

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I want to start my series on the authorship of the gospels with the Gospel of Mark. There is somewhat more agreement (“somewhat”), so it will perhaps be a good starting point. Also, Mark is generally agreed to be the earliest of the four gospels to be written. Some conservative scholars date it as early as the AD 50s, although a date @ 60-65 fits the chronology better in some respects, but also presents problems. The difficulty hinges on the authorship of Luke and Acts. If one accepts the traditional author as being Luke, the associate of the apostle Paul, then an early date for Mark is required. It is evident that the authors of both Matthew and Luke used Mark as one of their sources. So if Luke wrote his gospel, Mark must have been written early enough for Luke to use it. Also, since Acts ends before the death of Paul ( traditionally AD 63-64), Acts must date to before AD 64, which means Luke must be earlier and Mark earlier still. If this sounds confusing and problematic it is. It is a complicated issue, and we just have to accept that.

This brings up a significant fact which I am not sure we often recognize. The Gospel of Mark represents the earliest written account we have of Jesus’ life and ministry. For that reason, it must be considered of primary importance. We may speculate about oral traditions and the earliest representations of Jesus’ life and ministry, as well as His death and resurrection, but the reality is that Mark is the earliest account we have. For this reason, the picture Mark presents of Jesus must be taken seriously.

The question I want to consider today is whether or not Mark’s information is based on eyewitnesses who knew Jesus personally, or if it is one or more steps removed from direct contact with Jesus. I am not at this point considering who wrote Mark, merely how close to Jesus the information in Mark reflects.

Even allowing for shorter life spans in the ancient world, Mark’s gospel was written within the lifetime of people who had known Jesus. Eyewitness testimony was a possibility. So the question is whether Mark preserves material older than what he has written. I believe the answer is that he definitely did include earlier material.

The very word “gospel” which Mark uses (for instance Mark 1.1) is older than Mark. Paul (writing @ AD 50-51) uses the same word in 1 Corinthians 15.1-7 to refer to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. So it appears that while Mark gives us perhaps the earliest preserved account of these events, they did not originate with him.

In the first half of the second century (AD 100-130) a man named Papias preserved some very early traditions relating to the gospels. Unfortunately, all that remains of his work are fragments that are quoted or referred to by later writers, notably Eusebius in AD 325 (who was somewhat critical of Papias) as well as Irenaeus. At the same time, the fragments of the writings of Papias are intriguing and cannot simply be ignored. Papias has been interpreted as saying that he received teaching directly from some of the apostles, although I do not think that is what he says. What does appear probable is that Papias was in contact either directly or indirectly with the teachings of at least two of the elders who had known the apostles. We know that he knew Polycarp (who had known the apostle John), and apparently he also knew directly the teachings of “John the elder.” Some have equated John the elder with the apostle John, but it likely refers to another person who did know John.

Either way, Papias specifically says this about the gospel of Mark.

“Mark, having become Peter’s interpreter, wrote down accurately everything he remembered, though not in order, of the things either said or done by Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but afterward, as I said, followed Peter, who adapted his teachings as needed, but had no intention of giving an ordered account of the Lord’s sayings. Consequently Mark did nothing wrong in writing down some things as he remembered them, for he made it his one concern not to omit anything that he heard or to make any false statement in them.” (Holmes, Michael W., ed. The Apostolic Fathers in English).

Papias does not identify who Mark was, and I want to talk about that more in the next post. However, I believe two points are justified. First, as already mentioned, the Gospel of Mark is the most primitive account we have of the life and teachings of Jesus. Any objective study of these issues must take the Gospel of Mark seriously. Also, the writings of Papias represent the most ancient information about the source of Mark’s information, and we are told that it was the apostle Peter. None of this is proof, nor will I pretend that it should be taken as such; however, it is evidence that any honest evaluation must consider. Certainly scholars have contested all of these issues, but I believe the evidence is such that the burden is on the skeptics to show that Mark is not essentially based on eyewitness testimony. Simply characterizing the traditional view as simplistic and naïve will not do. The evidence requires a better response than that.

And so, I leave you with two conclusions, one is certain, the other less so. First of all, it is certain that the Gospel of Mark was written early enough to have been based at least partially on testimony of eyewitnesses, who had known Jesus and been with Him. I believe it is also at least possible that the apostle Peter was Mark’s primary source. If these two conclusions are true, it has huge implications for the picture of Jesus as presented, not only in Mark, but in Matthew and Luke as well.

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