When he wrote the gospel, Mark invented a new genre. It was a realistic historical biography that had miracles and an intimate portrayal of regular, everyday poor folk. That’s a miracle in itself.
Erich Auerbach is considered the father of comparative literature. In 1946, he wrote a book called “Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature.” In reading the gospel of Mark he found something entirely new. Compared to classical Greek and Roman rhetoric, all high style and pomposity, to the raw psychological intensity of ancient Hebrew Scripture does, the story of the gospels, were incredibly graphic and immediate and real, the only way to talk about the presence of God in the dusty streets of Palestine.
In Auerbach’s words, the gospel of Mark tells the story of the birth of a “spiritual movement in the depths of the common people, from within the everyday occurrences of contemporary life… a scene like Peter’s denial of Jesus, where Peter ‘broke down and wept’ just wasn’t told in those days.” It wasn’t a comedy, it wasn’t a grand historical tragedy like the fall of a city. It was too politically insignificant for history.
The gospel of Mark is a strange new kind of story. It’s weird… in a good way.
#1: The gospel of Mark is weird because it’s a story. And it’s an action story. It’s not super talky. Stuff is happening and happening quickly in the gospel of Mark. And then, and then, and then. Suddenly, suddenly, suddenly. There is teaching, and conversation, but if the gospel was a movie, it would be more John Wick than My Dinner with André.
Whatever else Mark is trying to do, he is not trying to enter a debate. He is trying to tell a story that he thinks really happened. Stories are actually better at bringing people together, and I think they are better at persuading people.
#2: The gospel of Mark is weird because it’s remarkably free of propaganda – if by propaganda we mean propping up the status quo of the current leadership. John Mark writes about people who still alive and still leaders of the church. Throughout Mark’s gospels, the followers of Jesus, who now the leaders, get absolutely brutal treatment. Peter especially. The leader of the church is shown to be a constant screw up, and the least impressive moment, the moment when he denies Jesus is detailed in painful closeup.
Even when talking about Jesus, Mark does not present an unflappable, unearthly figure. The Jesus who we meet in Mark’s gospel is powerful, wise and loving. But he shows doubts and frustrations. Awkward moments are not smoothed out, conflicts are not papered over and confusions are not untangled. It’s filled with little details that before modern literature, just didn’t exist. There was no such thing as ‘realistic fiction.’ Whatever people may say about the gospel of Mark, Mark was trying to write down what really happened.
#3: And finally, the gospel of Mark is weird because it’s about the little people. Almost all of Mark’s gospel takes place among farmers, fishermen, local soldiers, prostitutes and small time bureaucrats. Compared to other histories of the time, and even compared to other Jewish sources at the time, the story of Mark is focuses on intimate details of unimportant people – appropriate for a story about God coming to live among us. Mark is talking about the presence of God in the dusty streets of Palestine. It’s a radical new realistic style describing a new way of looking at reality.