Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Question Mark, Part 1

It is a long time since I read an entire book of the bible, beginning to end. It is even longer since I studied an entire book of the bible, beginning to end. Last time I did either of these two things, I read and studied the various books of the bible under the assumption that I was reading the Word of God. 

Over the last five years I have slowly, and somewhat reluctantly, come to the understanding that the bible is not the Word of God. The bible was written by human people with human motives, and while some of them might have felt inspired to write these words, there is no strong evidence that any divine being had any part in the composition and compilation of this book. (Note: the question of whether or not there is a divine being is an entirely separate one - the lack of divine inspiration of the bible does not entail that there is no God.)

Sloughing off the assumption of divine inspiration or authorship leaves me with a different set of assumptions when I read the text of the bible. It means I come away from reading the book with different questions and different conclusions. Its almost like reading a different book.

So I want to return to a few books of the bible and read/study them again, through different eyes. Before I would read the bible to learn something new about God or to find guidance in its pages, now when I read the bible I have a whole load of new questions to ask: Who wrote this? What was their purpose in writing it? Who were the intended audience? Did the author intend these words to be taken literally? Was the source material reliable? Is any of this true? Has anyone edited or rewritten these words since the original author wrote them? And so on. Previously the answers would always have been: God; To instruct me; Me; Yes; Yes; No; etc.

So I am returning to the Gospel of Mark, to read it through new eyes. My intention is to post my thoughts and questions here as I go along. Maybe I'll come to some conclusions along the way, maybe not. We'll see.

Why Mark? Well, because it is generally held to be the earliest of all the gospels we have, and the others are somewhat derivative of it. Some hold that Mark is actually the very first gospel. So its a good starting point. Also, it is quite short. So let's begin.

I'm going to begin by not assuming anything, insofar as I can. We don't know who Mark was. We don't know if he was called Mark. Mark was the most common name in the ancient Roman world, so this name could have been added to make it the gospel of everyman. The gospel according to Joe Bloggs. There is no particular reason to suppose that Mark (for simplicity, I'll continue to use the traditional name) is the same as the character of John Mark who makes a brief appearance in Acts. There is no particular reason to suppose that Mark was an eyewitness of the events presented, or even knew eyewitnesses. 

Another thing we don't really know is when the gospel was written. Some hold that it must have been written before the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD. Some hold that it must have been written after that event. I've even heard some claim that the work was written in the early 2nd century, not the late 1st century. And some, who see Marcionite content in the gospel, say that it is Marcionite in origin, which forces it a decade or two into the 2nd century, at the earliest. But let's just start by saying we don't know when it was written and go from there.

We also don't really know where it was written or who it was written to, although various theories have been proposed over the years. It is written in Greek, but was it originally in Greek or is the earliest version we have a translation of an earlier version? These are all questions we will address as we go.

So let's start with something I am reasonably sure of. I am reasonably convinced that the version of Mark we are able to read nowadays is pretty much unchanged since the mid 2nd century, which is when the NT documents began to be duplicated on mass, and widely distributed. The transmission chain may go back much earlier than that, but we can't be totally sure what happened earlier than the mid 2nd century.

I am reasonably convinced that the version of Mark we now have is basically a copy of a copy of a copy (etc.) of the gospel that was 'published' and distributed in the mid 2nd century. Prof David Trobisch says Polycarp was probably responsible for the compilation, duplication and publication of the NT canon, and who am I to argue with him? I find his case compelling.

What happened before this 'publication'? Well there are various theories. If we put all the possibilities together, we get a chain of events that could be as long as this:
  1. Events occurred. 
  2. Stories about these events were transmitted orally, perhaps for several decades.
  3. Some of those stories may have been embellished in transmission.
  4. Some of the stories may have been lost.
  5. Other stories were made up.
  6. The fictional stories were transmitted orally, perhaps for several decades.
  7. Some of those stories may have been embellished in transmission.
  8. Someone (lets call him Mark) collected some of these stories and wrote a gospel of Jesus out of them.
  9. He may have invented some scenes in the gospel to provide a bridge/narrative framework between stories he got from his sources.
  10. He may have also invented some stories that fitted his agenda and added them to his gospel to flesh it out. We now have what some scholars refer to as "Ur-Marcus".
  11. This gospel was used by a community of people somewhere.
  12. As the needs of the community changed, stories could have been dropped, edited or added to the gospel.
  13. This could have happened several times.
  14. It may have been picked up by other communities, with different agendas to the first, who may have modified it to fit their own purposes.
  15. Eventually the gospel came into the hands of the final editor, who may have modified the gospel to make it consistent with the other books in his collection.
Some claim there may even be more steps in the chain than that.

I'm not saying that I believe all these steps happened. This is a compilation of all the theories that I've heard. I think it is highly unlikely that all these steps occurred, but probably some of them did. The most conservative evangelical view is probably that 1, 2, 8, 11 and part of 15 occurred, while 3, 5, 8, 10, 12, etc. didn't. The most radical critical view is that 1-4 did not happen and everything started with the made up stories at point 5 or 10. I expect the truth is somewhere between those two extremes.

Occam's razor would have us shave away all the 'unnecessary' items on that list. So as we go through the book of Mark I'll highlight things that might suggest that some of those items are 'necessary', or at least possible, and should not therefore be discounted out of hand.

So having said all that, let's begin with Mark, chapter 1, verse 1... (in a future post)

1 comment:

luschen said...

Hi, really looking forward to your study of Mark. I would agree with your possible steps. Though the pastor of our evangelical church, always likes to stress that the Gospels were based on "eyewitness accounts" so I think he would disagree with your minimum number of steps, at least with the circulating stories. In his view, I imagine Mark interviewing the eyewitnesses and writing his gospel very soon after the resurrection. I of course find this extremely unlikely, especially since the same thing is said of the other Gospels, which often have very different versions of the same stories. I wonder if he even believes this himself or is just trying to keep the flock faithful.