The mysterious author of the oldest Gospel

People of the Book – St. Mark

Scholars are largely (but not unanimously) in agreement that after some of the epistles, the first account of Jesus’ life in the New Testament to be recorded in writing was the Gospel of Mark. The rather mysterious author undoubtedly had a special relationship with St. Peter, who referred to him affectionately as “my son” (1 Pet 5:13). Tradition holds that Mark served as Peter’s traveling secretary, and thus the Gospel we currently attribute to Mark holds the memories of the first pope upon whom Christ decided to build his church.

Mark appears in numerous places in the Bible, perhaps most notably as the one believed to be the “young follower” who ran away naked when the armed multitude came to take Jesus to trial and laid hands on the youth, tearing his tunic (Mk 14:51-2).

In addition to likely being the first to be written, Mark’s Gospel is also the most enigmatic and perhaps startling of the four, laden with allusions to messianic secrecy (where Jesus instructs the disciples to refrain from telling others who he is) and seeming contradictions (the earliest manuscripts end with verse 16:8, “They went away and fled from the tomb, telling no one anything because they were terrified” — one which obviously had to have its rough edges burnished over time because somebody apparently told someone, or no one would know about it today!).

The appended ending of the Markan post-Resurrection accounts is a good example of the development of the canon. Clearly, claiming a text is inspired does not deny the historical conditioning and bibliographical limitations of the author or redactor — the exegetical term for “editor” — nor the fact that it came to be over the course of decades.  These accounts did not drop out of the sky unsullied by the human condition, but rather developed from oral traditions, theological reflection, and prayerful memories over extremely long periods of time.  Nevertheless, Catholics profess that God played an inextricable role in directing these historical processes.

These memories, whether personal, collective, or as Metz calls them “dangerous,” are an intrinsic part of what it means to be not only Christian, but human. Catholic author Evelyn Waugh’s classic novel “Brideshead Revisited” discusses one of my favorite places in Europe, the Piazza San Marco in Venice, which holds the evangelist’s relics and is famously surrounded by birds, in terms of the memories which shape us as individuals and communities.

“These memories, which are my life — for we possess nothing certainly except the past — were always with me. Like the pigeons of St. Mark’s, they were everywhere, under my feet, singly, in pairs, in little honey-voiced congregations, nodding, strutting, winking, rolling the tender feathers of their necks, perching sometimes, if I stood still, on my shoulder or pecking a broken biscuit from between my lips; until, suddenly, the noon gun boomed and in a moment, with a flutter, and sweep of wings, the pavement was bare and the whole sky above dark with a tumult of fowl.” It is the past, even if painful as it was for the disciples and often is for us, which molds our spiritual and inner selves, informing (as well as potentially darkening like the scattering pigeons) the brightness of the present. However, the Scriptures tell us such experiences make us “perfect through suffering” and prepare us for the unimaginable glory of the Resurrection.

Long before his bones were moved to Venice, Mark was credited with founding the church in Alexandria, where they were originally kept for nearly a millennium. In the early days of Christianity, the sees of Alexandria in Egypt and Antioch in Syria surpassed all other theological settings in prominence outside of Rome and Jerusalem.  The two had differing visions and christological emphases, which while sometimes competitively rivalrous, reflected the refracted rays of the Way, the Truth, and the Life as a stained glass window displays the sunlight in innumerable shapes, hues and shades.

Alexandrian theology, eventually heavily influenced by St. Athanasius, emphasized Christ’s divinity as descending from the realm of unapproachable light and taking on human flesh in a very “top-down” model, which owed much to the Johannine tradition. Antiochene theology instead underscored the humanity of Jesus, his ability to suffer and be viewed as truly our brother and not some mythological God-figure merely wearing human clothing (a heresy known as docetism, from the Greek for simply “seeming” to be human). Both schools informed and complemented one another, forcing the other to account for legitimate divergence in perspective.  These theologies, while often leading to intense controversy (e.g., the Arian debate, which was probably the most self-destructive and divisive period in the history of Christianity, had its origins here), allowed the faith to develop into the challenging, quickening, invigorating entity it is and remains, and not to be relegated as a languid and archaic set of strict propositions eventually consigned to the dustbin of history.

Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is an administrator at Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life and is on the faculty for the Department of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies at Sacred Heart University.

Categories: Growing in Faith

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