We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Taking Stock of Mark (xxiv)

Lion of St. Mark, Piazza San Marco, Venice
This posting is the 24th in a series (originally written in 1998) looking at the Gospel of Mark from the perspective of a historian. The first posting in this series is (here).  What I'd like to do in this one is to take stock of the argument that I developed in the original set of studies on Mark so that we don't lose sight of that argument.

For some 16 years, I devoted considerable amounts of my time as a church-based research historian in Thailand to interviewing local church folks about the histories of their churches.  Eventually, I was struck by what I read in the Gospel of Mark, which sounded very similar to the kind of data—stories—that local church folks told me.  Working on intuition more than anything else, I developed the argument that I'm revisiting now, 14 years later, in this series of postings.

The argument is that the author of the Gospel of Mark talked with (interviewed) those who remembered Jesus or others who knew those who knew Jesus.  He collected their stories, and the Gospel of Mark is the result of those interviews.  I don't think that the author treated the data in the ways modern biographers do.  It appears that the author conflated events and arranged the stories in a way that reflected the actual person of Christ rather than the actual sequence in which they happened.  The author may have also assigned dialogue to the actors that was true to what Jesus and others said without them actually having said those words in that particular context.  That is to say, the author was not a modern biographer.  That being said, it seems evident that "Mark" shared a common goal with modern biographers, namely to present a faithful representation true to the subject—as faithful and true, that is, as possible.  The Gospel of Mark is an ancient work of historiography, written at a time when people believed in dreams and witnessed miracles.  It is grounded in and reflects actual events that took place on given days in real places between real people.  To be clear, again, I am not claiming that all of the events in the gospel happened in the way they are presented in it.  I am saying that something like Mark's stories did happen.

The bottom line is that modern-day followers of Christ can trust this gospel.  (I could hardly care less about the judgments of secular historians).  It actually does link us to the historical person of Jesus via the faith of the earliest church in him as the messiah, the one they believed sent by God to redeem Israel.  We have to decide for ourselves whether we put our faith in Jesus of Nazareth as God with us and how we do that, and for those who decide that they do put their faith in God in Christ Mark is an important link to the actual person of Jesus and the faith of the earliest church.

The Gospel of Mark is a faith document that takes empirical realities into account.  The author did not spin these stories out of thin air.  They are based on the memories of those who knew Christ first hand or knew those who did know him first hand.