Tag Archives: Gospel

Mark: Audience and Purpose

Considering the environment and multifarious plights of various Christian groups throughout the mid-first century, it is safe to say that whatever community Mark wrote for was written for was familiar with some level of suffering. In attempting to hone in on the identity of this audience, one must consider the date of the writing in relation to the Jewish revolt and destruction of the Temple by the Roman General Titus in 70 AD. Joel Marcus makes the argument for a post-Revolt writing of Mark saying that “it seems likely that the prophecies of false messiahs, war, persecution, and betrayal in vv. 6-13 (cf. vv. 21-22) are part of the present experience of Mark’s community.”[1] However despite Marcus’ bold assertion that he has solidly proven the post-Revolt dating of Mark and that the “decks are cleared,”[2] the matter is hardly resolved, or in his favor. Hengel, in his excellent Studies in the Gospels of Mark, sets forth a decent case of his own for a Markan sitz im leben grounded firmly in pre-revolt Judea, convincingly citing Mark’s apparent familiarity with and proximity to events that were disrupted only after the Revolt,[3] something the later Gospel writers did not have to such a degree as Mark apparently did.

With many scholars recognizing the presence of some sort of suffering within the Markan community, the question of what sort of suffering are they enduring arises. It very well could be suffering at the hands of Nero in a mid-60s Rome, as dramatically relayed by Tacitus in 115 AD. It is also quite possible that the suffering of the Markan audience was due to the warring factions of Jews and Gentiles in the unrest following Nero’s granting Caesarea to Gentiles, which resulted in a slaughter of Jews and a subsequent reprisal against the Gentiles in the region surrounding Galilee. If this is the case, one might cite this as a reason for Mark’s Galilean focus and emphasis. It is also possible that the suffering was that which occurred in the events leading up to the Jewish revolt and destruction of the Temple, a suffering that also included fear and an uncertainty of the coming events of their time.  It has also been considered that the ‘suffering’ of the audience of Mark might be due to the presence of false prophets and false teachers spreading heresy among the early church, and thus is was of concern to Mark and the major impetus behind his writing (so Weeden[4]). And there are others (Marcus) who consider it a suffering that has occurred because of the Jewish revolt as these Christians are now living lives in exile, in a new world without Jerusalem and the Temple.

While it is my view that Mark was written before the Jewish revolt to a community that was experiencing some form of persecution and experiencing the tumultuous events that led up to the revolt in 66 AD, many points of a post-70 writing are worth considering. On salient one being that if Mark were writing to a post-70 audience, it would be to an audience who was bereaved of a temple and hopes of a Messianic savior figure. Mark’s gospel account, therefore, offered to the Jewish nation a new, different sort of Davidic Messiah that offered them a new, intangible kingdom – the “Kingdom of God” – in the stead of their old, earthly kingdom that had recently passed away. This lends a certain appeal to a post-temple dating, one that would offer hope to the reader despite present helpless and hopeless circumstances. In this case, then, Mark is certainly writing to a suffering community, and is offering them the hope of being part of a heavenly, eternal kingdom.

I believe that we do see that the Markan audience was a ‘suffering community,’ at least in some regard. With this, Mark addresses the plight of his audience quite well, constantly reminding them of the authority of Christ in every encounter and endeavor. At the beginning of his account, Mark reminded his audience that Christ was the one foretold of by the prophets (1:2) and then at the end, reminded his audience that the suffering of the Messiah was part of God’s eternal plan (14:49). Throughout Mark’s account, Christ showed His mastery over every event that caught the disciples by surprise (4:35-41, 6:47-51). He displayed His power and authority over sickness, demonic agents, disease, the laws of nature (6:36-44), nature itself (4:35-41), and even death, the greatest and most powerful of foes (5:35-43; 16:5-7). Christ repeatedly predicted His own death (8:31, 9:9, 9:31), showing mastery over the circumstances of even such an abysmal event as this. Shortly before His betrayal in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus confidently rose from prayer and roused His disciples to go out and meet His betrayer head on (14:42). Christ even told His disciples (and by proxy, Mark’s audience) of the sufferings that they, themselves, would endure before the end (chapter 13), preparing them for persecution and for the fall of Jerusalem.

Through such wonderful acts and exhibitions of power and authority, therefore, Jesus displays for Mark’s audience that there is nothing outside of His power and control, that there is nothing that has caught Him off guard, and that He is sufficient to meet their needs and to see them through their trials, as difficult as those trials may be. I believe this is a major theme of Mark, one that influenced his writing greatly to an audience that lived in a world that seemed to be falling apart at the seams. He wrote – and Jesus spoke – to give comfort to the afflicted and to let them know that there is nothing outside of God’s plan and purpose, and to the point that He would even forfeit His life for that same plan and purpose, while being in full command of the entire situation. This theme of God’s continual purpose and sovereignty is one that is pervasive throughout the work, and we will see this as we begin to work through Mark together.

 

 

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[1] Joel Marcus, “The Jewish War and the Sitz im Leben of Mark.” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 111, No. 3 (Autumn, 1992): 441-462. 447.

[2] ibid, 446.

[3] Martin Hengel, Studies in the Gospel of Mark (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2003), 9-10.

[4] Theodore J. Weeden, “The Heresy That Necessitated Mark’s Gospel.” Zeitschrift die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche, (Jan 1, 1968): 145-158.

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Let Us Begin – What is Mark?

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Any study of a book of the Bible must begin by addressing the issue of Genre. One of the most elusive aspects of Mark, and indeed of the Gospels in general, is identifying and assigning to them a specific genre by which they might be best interpreted. Many suggestions have been set forward, including the idea that the genre of Gospel (εὐαγγελίον) was a new, independent invention by the gospel writers. Aside from this idea, however, most of the theories regarding the genre of the Gospels – and Mark in particular – place it somewhere in the realm of biography or narrative history, with the former being the most common.

One of the greater objections to considering the Gospel of Mark to be a biography is that the author has no intention of including a history of Jesus’ birth, childhood, or early adulthood. These aspects appear to be important as per the definition presented by David Aune, that “biography may be defined as a discrete prose narrative devoted exclusively to the portrayal of the whole life of a particular individual perceived as historical”[1] (though he places Mark as a sub-genre of Greco-Roman biography[2]). According to Collins, Vielhauer concluded as well that “Mark is not an example of a Greco-Roman ‘life’ because, unlike the typical ancient biography, it shows no interest in the origins, education, and inner development of Jesus.”[3] So on these two counts (and more), the Gospel of Mark does not appear at first glance to be a simple biography written in the same mode as traditional Greco-Roman biography.

However, many advancements have been made in the comparison of the Gospel accounts with variations of biographies in antiquity, resulting in a broader definition and structure of biography. Burridge took this opportunity to reinterpret Greco-Roman ‘biography’ as βιος, rather than biography, granting more flexibility to this ancient genre.[4] With this reinvention or expansion of possibilities of this genre, one finds many examples which would allow for a more forgiving understanding of biography, one that would allow Mark to be classified as such. Many have therefore begun to understand Mark as a “historical biography,” βιος, or even an “apocalyptic historical monograph” (so Collins).

It is a point of interest, however, that without these elements of early biographical material, Mark has famously been described as a “Passion narrative with an extended introduction.”[5] This description is telling, for it recognizes the purpose of the work as primarily theological, as it is focused on Jesus’ Passion and resurrection, with these things, themselves, being instrumental to the implementation of the Kingdom of God. Mark (as is evidenced not only throughout the book or at its end, but in its very prologue) is theological in nature, with the narrative serving the purpose of 1) establishing the events in a historical context, and 2) driving the story along to reach its theological conclusion. Vielhauer believed the motivation for the writing of this gospel to be based in the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ,[6] which we see evidenced through Mark’s special attention to the last week and even more so to the last hours of Christ’s life, as time slows steadily at that point (a rather deft literary device to draw attention the emphasis of the work).

Taking these things into account, then, and with purpose and genre being inseparable, I would argue that Mark’s purpose was to assemble his received material in a way that displayed a particular theological point that he wanted to convey. Mark, therefore, is a collection of events of the life of Jesus constructed around a theological purpose. And so, answering the original question, I would not classify the Gospel of Mark so much as a “life” of Jesus, but as a “theological biography,” for the author’s intent is clearly theological, and at the center of this theology is the person of Jesus Christ. It is truly so much more than the life of a man, but includes what theological and eschatological implications were brought into the realm of humankind through the life of Jesus of Nazareth while constantly challenging his audience to wrestle – alongside the characters in the story – with the identity of who this man really is and with what authority He has to institute this sort of divine kingdom among men.

 

 

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[1] David E. Aune, The New Testament in Its Literary Environment (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co, 1988), 29.

[2] Ibid, 46-76.

[3] Adela Yarbro Collins, Is Mark’s Gospel a life of Jesus? (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 1990), 10. Vielhauer also held the view that “the gospel form itself is something new” (ibid).

[4] Richard A. Burridge, What Are the Gospels? A Comparison with Greco-Roman Biography. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), 233-255.

[5] Martin Kähler, The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic, Biblical Christ, trans. C. E. Braaten (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1964), 80.

[6] Philipp Vielhauer, Geschichte der urchristlichen Literature (New York, NY: de Gruyter, 1975), 350.