- Oral and Written Aspects of the Emergence of the Gospel of Mark as Scripture
Jewish and Christian, and especially Protestant Christian, emphasis upon the sacred book and its authority have combined with scholarly interests and techniques, as well as the broader developments in the modern West . . . to fix in our minds today a rather narrow concept of scripture, a concept even more sharply culture-bound than that of “book” itself.—William Graham (1987)
Mark’s Gospel . . . was composed at a desk in a scholar’s study lined with texts. . . . In Mark’s study were chains of miracle stories, collections of pronouncement stories in various states of elaboration, some form of Q, memos on parables and proof texts, the scriptures, including the prophets, written materials from the Christ cult, and other literature representative of Hellenistic Judaism.—Burton Mack (1988)
It was not necessary that the Gospel performer know how to read. The performer could learn the Gospel from hearing oral performance. . . . It is quite possible, and indeed even likely, that many Gospel performers were themselves illiterate. . . . It was certainly possible for an oral performer to develop a narrative with this level of structural complexity. . . . In Mark the number of interconnections between parts of the narrative are quite extraordinary.—Whitney Shiner (2003)
The procedures and concepts of Christian biblical studies are often teleological. The results of the historical process are assumed in study of its early stages. Until recently critical study of the books of the New Testament focused on establishing the scriptural text and its meaning in the context of historical origins. Ironically that was before the texts became distinctively authoritative for communities that used them and were recognized as Scripture by established ecclesial authorities. Such teleological concepts and procedures obscure what turn out to be genuine historical problems once we take a closer look.
How the Gospels, particularly the Gospel of Mark, came to be included in the Scriptures of established Christianity offers a striking example. On the earlier Christian theological assumption that Christianity as the religion of the Gospel made a dramatic break with Judaism as the religion of the Law, one of the principal questions was how the Christian church came to include the Jewish Scriptures in its Bible. We now see much more clearly the continuity of what became Christianity with Israel. The Gospels, especially Matthew and Mark, portray Jesus as engaged in a renewal of Israel. The Gospel of Matthew is now generally seen as addressed to communities of Israel, not “Gentiles” (Saldarini 1994). And while Mark was formerly taken as addressed to a “Gentile” community in Rome, it is increasingly taken as addressed to communities in Syria that understand themselves as the renewal of Israel (Horsley 2001).
Far more problematic than the inclusion of the Jewish Scripture (in Greek) is inclusion of the Gospels in the Christian Bible. The ecclesial authorities who defined the New Testament canon in the fourth and fifth centuries were men of high culture. The Gospels, however, especially the Gospel of Mark, did not meet the standards of high culture in the Hellenistic and Roman cultural world. Once the Gospels became known to cultural elite, opponents of the Christians such as Celsus, in the late second century, mocked them for their lack of literary distinction and their composers as ignorant people who lacked “even a primary education” (Contra Celsum 1.62). Fifty years later, the “church father” Origen proudly admitted that the apostles possessed “no power of speaking or of giving an ordered narrative by the standards of Greek dialectical or rhetorical arts” (Contra Celsum 1.62). Luke had asserted, somewhat presumptuously perhaps, that he and his predecessors as “evangelists” had, in the standard Hellenistic-Roman ideology of historiography, set down an “orderly account” of events in the Gospels. Origen, who knew better, had to agree with Celsus that the evangelists were, as the Jerusalem “rulers, elders, and scribes” in the second volume of Luke’s “orderly account” said about Peter and John, “illiterate and ignorant” (agrammatoi kai idiotai, Acts 4:13).
Nor would the Gospels, again especially Mark, have measured up as Scripture on the model of previous Jewish scriptural texts. The Gospels stand in strong...