News: Liberal Christian Message for Christmas

Dr Francis Macnab is the controversial Executive Minister of St Michael’s Uniting Church in Melbourne, Australia who regularly questions the existence of God. In his Christmas message (YouTube link) Macnab refers to the nativity story of Jesus as legend.

Alex McCullie

Article: Seeking Mark’s Jesus

Who was Jesus according to Mark?

The New Testament gospels are our only real source of information about the activities and sayings of Jesus and each gospel presents a different persona, especially between the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke and that of John. And when you include the non-canonical gospels like the Gospel of Thomas, you are presented with many different and often irreconcilable versions of Jesus.

I decided to look at Mark’s gospel. Beware I’m an ordinary reader and not a theologian nor a New Testament scholar. Historians mostly agree that Mark’s gospel is the earliest canonical gospel and both Matthew and Luke use it for their writings. Mark’s gospel was written around 70CE, some 40 years after Jesus’ death, and it draws from stories told within Christian communities. As an aside, most scholars agree that the New Testament books were written in Greek and the Old Testament books were written in Hebrew. Jesus and disciples probably spoke Aramaic, a Semitic language similar to Hebrew.

We know little of Jesus from non-Christian sources. Jesus was born in Judea or Galilee around in 4 BCE and was executed by the Romans between 29 and 32CE for insurrection. He founded a small Jewish religious sect that continued after his death and expanded to become the official religion of the Roman empire under Constantine. Our knowledge of Jesus’ activities and teachings come from the canonical and non-canonical gospels but cannot be verified by external sources. Even though you’d think that their efficacy should be treated as religious faith alone, scholars are able to apply secular techniques to establish likelihoods of their accuracy. As one example, the Jesus Seminar, a group of liberal New Testament scholars, attempts to identify the actual sayings of Jesus. The Seminar estimates that 20% or less of Jesus’ sayings can be actually attributed to him. Other examples of fine secular research are the extensive and impressive writings of Professor Bart Ehrman.

Let’s be clear about the purpose of a gospel. It was not a biography in any modern sense but proclamations about the ‘good news’ of Jesus for Christian communities and potential converts. Some took a predominately narrative form like Mark and others were simply sayings like Thomas. So the intended readers or listeners were Christian and already believed in Jesus as the son of God. Mark sprinkled his gospel with explicit references to Jesus’ divine nature for the faithful. I’ll simply look at how Jesus was presented to his contemporaries and perhaps understand his mission.

Firstly here’s some background about Mark and his gospel.

Traditionally Mark’s gospel has been attributed to John Mark, a companion and personal secretary to Peter. This attribution made 60 years after writing is probably more about credibility within early Christian communities than any real historical accuracy. All we can guess is that the author was a well-educated Greek-speaking Christian: very few people in the first century could read or write let alone write a full book. It is also worth noting at this point that Jesus and his disciples came from the lowest parts of Jewish society and therefore were most probably uneducated and illiterate. For simplicity, though, I’ll refer to Mark as the author of this gospel.

Mark’s gospel is a rapid-fire narrative covering the last year of Jesus’ life – (1) Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist; (2) his gathering of disciples; (3) listing miracles he performed and parables he delivered; (4)disagreements with local religious leaders; (5) entry into Jerusalem and rampaging of the Temple; (6) the last supper at the Passover and his arrest; (7) his trial and execution; and (8) the empty tomb after execution. Curiously there is no mention of Jesus’ virgin birth. This does not seem to be oversight as his family later saw Jesus as mad (3:21). It’s hard to explain that if his mother already knew of Jesus’ divine nature at birth. Another amazing omission is his appearance to disciples after resurrection, which is arguably the core part of the Christian faith. Most historians agree that the reappearance stories in Mark (16:9-20) were added by later copyists and editors of the gospel. Finally, after my first reading I couldn’t help wonder what was Jesus doing for his previous 29 years prior to this final year of ministry. Again the gospel is not a biography and so this history wasn’t theologically important to Mark. Again, it’s important to remember that a gospel is primarily a theological document more than a historical one.

Now let’s look at Mark’s Jesus. He was an itinerant rural Jewish healer who preached an apocalyptic message of the imminent overthrow of Caesar’s rule by that of God. A future “son of man” would replace Roman world of power, privilege and corruption with a loving kingdom of God. Jesus expected this to happen within the lifetimes of his disciples (9:1). He taught this message to his closest disciples as secret knowledge but ultimately the knowledge that would lead to his execution for sedition. Is this the true secret that Judas Iscariot betrayed to the authorities as suggested by some historians? Throughout most of the gospel, Jesus’ preachings were neither truly understood by his closest followers nor accepted by most Jews including family and friends and local religious leaders. Jesus’ demand for secrecy on one hand and his preaching in confusing parables exasperated the situation. Ironically he would then express frustration and disappointment with his disciples for their lack of understanding.

Despite some local crowds in rural areas Jesus went relatively unnoticed by Jewish authorities until he entered Jerusalem during the Passover festival – a politically very difficult time for the Roman occupiers. The Passover symbolised a previous time when the Jews were freed from foreign oppressors. His predictions of ending the Roman rule and co-operative Jewish elite with his disturbances at the Temple inexorably lead to his arrest by the local Jewish leaders and his subsequent execution by the Roman authorities. This was a typical way of handling a perceived public threat.

As a messiah Jesus appeared vastly different to most Jewish expectations. Jesus fell short of their King David-like hero who would rid the Jews of the Roman oppressors by military force. And, frankly, he doesn’t fit the modern day hero concept either. Only years of Christian teaching encourage us to define a saviour or messiah as one who suffers and not one who is strong and powerful enough to oust oppressors. We are unable to see this dissonance.

Even after Jesus’ death, Christians worked hard to avoid the linking of his death with the Old Testament curse of the hanging man (Deuteronomy 21:20-23). Ultimately I couldn’t decide how Jesus saw himself. Was he the “son of man” and heralding the kingdom of God or was he awaiting the “son of man”? And did he see himself as the unique son of God? Many historians do believe that Jesus believed he was or would be “king of Jews” even though that expression wasn’t later used by Christians.

Overall Mark makes the “suffering and misunderstood messiah” the major motif of the gospel. I felt that Jesus’ position is largely self-imposed. However it is easy to relate to Jesus. He appears more human than divine by displaying many of our qualities and weaknesses – compassion to help the inflicted; acceptance of the shunned; annoyance and anger with confused supporters and enemies; fears of his pending death; and finally doubts with God at Jesus’ death with his famous cry: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (15:34 from Old Testament Psalm 22:1)

A famous turning point in the gospel when Jesus had to prompt their understanding:

“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.” (Mark 8:29) – at last thought Jesus.

Even then they didn’t understand the purpose of Jesus’ intended suicide to save humanity. At times the gospel is like a comedy sketch where the audience knows the purpose of the protagonist but the stupid characters do not. We feel like shouting out. I guess that makes for good story-telling and was part of the Mark’s motivational techniques for the faithful.

Finally here are some observations.

Mark seems preoccupied with human weakness, suffering, ignorance and fickleness. He shows this through the very human Jesus, the afflicted, the disciples, local religious leaders and even Jesus’ own family and friends. Humanity, without Christ and forgiveness, is full of anger, fear, distrust, stupidity and fickleness. Only at the end of the gospel does Mark offer hope through the “rising” of Jesus as announced by the unknown young man in the empty tomb (16:6).

I find Mark’s Jesus a very confusing character. His healings and teachings seem erratic as he and his disciples wander rural Galilee almost deliberately avoiding the cities and crowds. Despite separate instruction his disciples were for the most part unable to understand Jesus. Family, friend and former acquaintances rejected his teachings. Even Jesus doubted his own mission. Today we would see him as well-meaning and very disturbed person who needs help not punishment. Perhaps that is Jesus’ legacy to humanity – prefer to help and support others in distress and not to punish them.

Alex McCullie