Mark got no respect. As a person. As an author. Tradition states that Mark had stumpy fingers. We know nothing of his appearance except for this. Ancient scholars felt compelled to point that little tidbit out.
The author of Mark’s gospel is thought to be the same person as John Mark, whose story we read in the book of Acts. (Acts 12:12; 12:25: 15:37.) It’s not a glorious career. He follows Paul and Barnabas on their missionary journey. But he gives up half way through – too scared or tired to go on. Paul refuses to give him a second chance. Barnabas wants to give him a second chance but Paul refuses. They go their separate ways, unable to reconcile how they will treat Mark. (Although Tim 4:11 suggests that Paul changed his mind later.)
And many thought Mark was a bad, uneducated writer. His gospel was considered to be a cheap knock-off. In the early middle ages, scholars preferred Matthew and Luke for their more elaborate language and longer teaching sections. And they noted that Mark’s gospel included lots of the same text as Matthew and Luke. So, for a long time people thought that Mark was an edited, stripped down version of those longer ‘synoptic’ gospels. (John’s gospel takes a very different approach so he ‘sees things differently… so it’s not one of the synoptic gospels.)
But about 200 years ago people started to think that it was the other way around – that Matthew and Luke copied Mark; that Mark was the first, and earliest gospel, written about AD 66-70. People started to see new patterns, literary devices and craft in Mark’s work. Mark’s rough and tumble gospel may have been hiding a secret literary heart.
But I think this is how Mark would have liked it. Have a look at Mark 14:51-52 That’s Mark including himself in the story, I think. He doesn’t see himself as the hero. He was probably Peter’s cousin and moved in the outer circles of Jesus’ ministry. His mother may have been one of the wealthy women who supported Jesus.
Authorship is not a hugely important question. The gospel that we have in our hands today has been held and read and preached and translated and believed for so many years that the gospel really does speak for itself.
But what we know of Mark is kind of interesting – it seems to me he knew something about failure, about shame and about struggle. He’s not a scholar and he’s not a saint. And he tells the story of Jesus from that perspective – a fearful follower who finds in Jesus someone completely hopeful.
A few years back, a pocket book version of the gospel of Mark was printed. And the introduction to this little book was written by none other than Nick Cave (yes, Nick Cave of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Google him and his music. O Children, Red Right Hand, Ship Song and No More Shall We Part… good stuff.) He describes Mark and his gospel better than most. I’ll leave you with Nick’s intro.
“I spent my pre-teen years singing in the Wangaratta Cathedral Choir and even at that age I recall thinking what a wishy-washy affair the whole thing was. The Anglican Church: it was the decaf of worship and Jesus was their Lord.
“Why Mark?”, I asked. “Because it’s short”, he replied. I was willing to give anything a go, so I took the vicar’s advice and read it and the Gospel of Mark just swept me up.
“Mark took from the mouths of teachers and prophets the jumble of events that comprised Christ’s life and fixed these events into some kind of biographical form. He did this with such breathless insistence, such compulsive narrative intensity, that one is reminded of a child recounting some amazing tale, piling fact upon fact, as if the whole world depended upon it – which , of course, to Mark it did. ‘Straightway’ and ‘immediately’ link one event to another, everyone ‘runs’, ‘shouts’, is ‘amazed’, inflaming Christ’s mission with a dazzling urgency.
“Throughout Mark, Christ is in deep conflict with the world He is trying to save, and the sense of aloneness that surrounds Him is at times unbearably intense.
“Mark’s Gospel is a clatter of bones, so raw, nervy and lean on information that the narrative aches with the melancholy of absence. Scenes of deep tragedy are treated with such a matter of factness and raw economy they become almost palpable in their unprotected sorrowfulness.”