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The Earliest Gospel by Frederick C. Grant

Frederick C. Grant was Edwin Robinson Professor Emeritus of Biblical Theology at Union Theological Seminary, New York, and President of Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, Evanstaon Ill. He was a member of the Revision Committee for the Revised Standard Version of the Bible. Published by Abingdon Press, New York and Nashville, 1943. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.

Chapter 3: The Evangelic Tradition

The source material available for the composition of Mark’s Gospel was the evangelic tradition as it circulated in the church at Rome in the middle or late sixties of the first century. (Of course Mark did not set out to look for "source material"; the material was already at hand.) Not all of this material was public property -- some traditions would naturally be better known than others. Nor must we suppose that Mark would use all that was available to him for the purposes of his book -- he was not writing a modern "definitive" biography! In fact, he was not even writing a "Gospel" in our sense of the term, for no such book existed as a model. It was only a little book about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, gathering up the current information about his life and death, endeavoring to prove that he had already been the Messiah or "Son of Man" while he lived on earth, and explaining why he had died on the cross. His teaching is taken for granted, but it is not quoted extensively nor expounded. (Later writers of Gospels were to supply this lack.)

1. To begin with, there was the narrative of Jesus’ death -- the longest continuous narrative in the traditions about him and the earliest to take fixed form, according to modern form critics. This, the current Roman passion narrative, Mark expanded and edited. For one thing, he believed the Last Supper had been a Passover meal, and so he revised the narrative to make this clear. For another, he believed that Jesus meant his death to be a sacrifice "for many"; that also had to be made clear. The Jewish trial and condemnation of Jesus provided another feature that must be added. As a result, our fourteenth and fifteenth chapters of Mark can be analyzed into two, or even three, classes of material: (1) the old, traditional passion narrative of the Roman church, ultimately derived from Palestine; (2) the additional material inserted into it by Mark, some of it perhaps from Palestine, some not; and finally, (3) some verses which may be later still, inserted in the interest of the risen Jesus’ appearance in Galilee rather than in Jerusalem. Two verses, Mark 14:28; 16:7, may be later even than the Gospel of Luke, though earlier than Matthew. The Appendix to John, chapter 21, as well as Matthew’s resurrection narrative, shows the influence of this conception of the location of the appearances. (‘See chap. vi below, "Jerusalem or Galilee?" See also B. W. Bacon. "The Resurrection in Judean and Galilean Tradition," Journal of Religion 11:506-16.)

2. Of first importance, as leading up to the passion narrative, and explaining the opposition that led to Jesus’ death, are the controversies, thirteen -- possibly fifteen -- in all, and found in 2:1-3:6; 3:22-30; 7:5-13 (or 23); 8:11-12 (or 21); 9:11-13; 10:2-12 (or 9?); 11:27-33; 12:13-34 (or 40). The material they contain was doubtless Palestinian in origin; and though the controversies were still "live" issues in the sixties, wherever church and synagogue were still in conflict, there is little reason to question that they go back to Jesus himself.(See The Growth of the Gospels, chap. v, esp. pp. 105 ff.) They appear in Mark chiefly in two blocks, each with an appropriate editorial conclusion. The first block concludes, "Then the Pharisees left the synagogue and immediately consulted with the Herodians about Jesus, with a view to putting him to death."(Mark 3:6)The second ends, "And after that no one dared to question him." (Mark 12:34b)

These controversies are the following:

1. Healing -- 2:1-12
2. Eating with sinners -- 2:l3-l7
3. Fasting -- 2:18-22 (19b is a gloss; 20 is probably editorial)
4. Sabbath observance -- 2 :23 -- 3:6 (two traditions are combined here)
The source of Jesus’ "power" -- 3:22-30
6. External requirements of the Law -- 7:5-13
7. "Signs" -- 8:11-12
8. Elijah’s return -- 9:11-l3
9. The permission of divorce -- 10:2-9
10. Jesus’ authority -- 11:27-33
11. Civil obedience (the tribute money) -- 12:13-17
12. The resurrection (marriage) -- 12:18-25
13. The interpretation of the Law (the chief commandment) -- 12:28-34
14. The Messiah not Son of David -- 12:35-37
15. Warning against the scribes -- 12:38-40

It is a question if the last two really belong to the controversy series: they are more like attacks upon the scribes than controversies with them, and the question of the Davidic sonship seems more like a debate within the church than a controversy with the scribes, though its form reminds us of number 8:

9:11 "Why do the scribes say . . . ."
12:35 "How can the scribes say . . . ."

Perhaps both subjects, the Son of David Messiahship and the return of Elijah before the end, were questions of even greater moment within the Christian community than in the unadjourned debate with the synagogue. Both were related to the expectation of the earthly kingdom -- an idea which survived for a long time in early Christianity,( Cf. Rev. 20:1-6; Luke 22:28-30; the Montanists.) and had been gradually overcome only by the time of Origen.(See ‘The Eschatology of the Second Century," American Journal of Theology, 21:193-211.).

The first four of these controversies are obviously Galilean; those numbered 9-13 are located by Mark in Judea -- or Perea -- and Jerusalem, where clearly 10 and 11 belong. Of the others, 5 and 7 may be drawn from the Q cycle, and also 15. Like 8 and 14, number 6, on the external requirements of the Law, may reflect discussion of the question, and appeal to Jesus’ authority, within the church itself.(Cf. Acts 10-11 and 15. See The Growth of the Gospels, pp. 104-10.)

3. Into this material were inserted other small collections:

1. The day in Capernaum, perhaps originally from Peter’s reminiscences -- 1 :21-39
2. The chapter of parables -- 4:l-34
3. The call, appointment, and mission of the disciples -- 1:16-20; 3:13-19; 6:7-13, etc.
4. The two parallel accounts of journeys about Galilee and in the north -- 6:34 -- 7:37 and 8:1-26
5. The great "central section" on "the Way of the Cross," as Bacon called it -- 8:27-10:45
6. The journey to Jerusalem -- 10:1, 46-52; 11:1-24
7. The "Little Apocalypse" -- for which no more appropriate place could be found than just before the passion narrative

This last, an originally Jewish, or Jewish-Christian, apocalypse -- 13 :6-8, 14-20, 24-27 (31 ?) -- had perhaps already received additions, from Q or elsewhere, which thus expanded it into practically its present form in Mark 13. Whether this Little Apocalypse, either in its original form or as expanded, was identical with the "oracle" which Eusebius says the Jerusalem Christians received some time before the fall of that city -- and so were warned to flee and went to Pella, east of the Jordan (Eccl. Hist. 3. 5. 3. It is a question whether fleeing to Pella is the same thing as fleeing "to the hills." Also, Pella was a "city of the Gentiles," as modern archaeology proves.) -- is not at all certain, but is an interesting possibility. The material is old: "the abomination of desolation" is thought by many to be a reference to Caligula’s attempt to set up his own statue in the temple at Jerusalem in the year 41.(Mark 13:14. See Josephus, War 2. 10=5§§184 ff.) Jews, and likewise Christian Jews, saw in it a fulfillment of the dire prophecy of Daniel.(Daniel 9:27; 12:11.)

4 .Much of this material, the old evangelic tradition, contained sayings of Jesus. (1) Indeed, the earliest stories of his life and deeds were probably told because of the sayings they enshrined and illustrated -- they were the simple settings for priceless jewels.( See esp. Vincent Taylor, The Formation of the Gospel Tradition (1933); also Dibelius, The Message of Jesus Christ, esp. Pt. II.) (2) Some of the sayings, however, were detached; and if we find them used in other connections by Luke and Matthew, and conclude that these later evangelists derived them from their common source, Q, the possibility is still open that Mark also drew them from this source -- which was either a written collection or, more probably, still an oral collection, quoted by Mark from memory and therefore not always in the form followed by Luke or Matthew. The fact that Matthew and Luke use these sayings in other connections, and then repeat them when following Mark, together with the fact of the sometimes divergent form of the sayings in Mark, seems best to be explained by the hypothesis that Mark also is drawing from the common stock -- either the collection Q or its equivalent in some common cycle of "sayings of the Lord." ( Cf. The Growth of the Gospels, pp. 129-31.) (3) In addition, there is a group of sayings, fourteen in number, that deserve to be studied by themselves -- the so-called Son of Man sayings. These reflect a distinct theological point of view, a very primitive one, and pre-Marcan; that is, they probably reflect a stage somewhere between the original Palestinian tradition and the form in which it was used by Mark.(See "Form Criticism and the Christian Faith," Journal of Bible and Religion, 7:9-17; also the symposium, ibid., 7:172-83.) Some of the sayings seem to distinguish clearly between Jesus and the celestial figure so named; one or two might almost be translated "man" in general, or "men"; some of them identify Jesus with a celestial apocalyptic figure of the end of days to such an extent that the term is little more than an equivalent for the first person singular; and others view the celestial figure almost without reference to Jesus. Seven of the sayings occur in the central section -- "the Way of the Cross -- where they are combined with, or form an integral part of, the three passion announcements.("See J. Wellhausen, Das Evangelium Marci (2nd ed., 1909); A. H. McNeile, New Testament Teaching in the Light of St. Paul’s (1933), chap. i.; B. H. Branscomb, Commentary on Mark, pp. 146-49; my The Gospel of the Kingdom, esp. chap. iv and note on p. 197; also the important essay by Clarence Tucker Craig, "The Problem of the Messiahship of Jesus," New Testament Studies, ed. E. P. Booth (1942)). The great "paradox of the cross," for Mark as for Paul and many another, was the self-humiliation of the glorious, celestial "Son of Man" in accepting suffering and death for the sake of "many."(Mark 10:45. Paul does not use the term, "Son of Man," but he repeatedly emphasizes the self-humiliation of the Son of God.)

These fourteen "Son of Man" sayings are as follows:

2:10 "The Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins. The saying is found in a controversy section, and many scholars incline to view either the whole of vs. 10 or perhaps even vss. 5b-10a as secondary.(Cf. Bousset, Kyrios Christos, p. 40; also Menzies’ note, ad loc.)

2:28 "Hence the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath." The very form of the saying -- "hence," or "so that" -- and its dependence upon vs. 27, which is complete without it, suggest that the addition is inferential and editorial. Its motive is clearly theological, and it probably reflects the theology of the later Christian community, not the teaching of Jesus. Some scholars hold that vss. 10 and 28 were originally spoken of "man" in general; but Mark certainly understood "the Son of Man" to mean Jesus, the future celestial Messiah already living upon earth.

The next seven sayings are from the central section on "the Way of the Cross."

8:31 The first passion announcement. It is worth noting that Matthew substitutes a pronoun, "he," for "the Son of Man."

8:38 "The Son of Man will be ashamed of him, when he comes in the glory of his Father, with the holy angels." This is probably a Q saying, more briefly and more originally reported in Luke 12:9, "He who denies me in the presence of men will be denied in the presence of the angels of God" (the Son of Man is named in vs. 8). Matt. 10:33 has, "Anyone who denies me in the presence of men, I too will deny him in the presence of my Father who is in heaven." Apparently "the presence of men" belongs to the Q form of the saying. It is extraordinary that Matthew again substitutes a personal pronoun for the title. Some have thought that Mark here preserves the oldest form of the saying, and that Jesus thought of the future celestial judge as distinct from himself, the rewarder and punisher of those who confess or disown Jesus as their Master.

9:9 The disciples are to keep secret the story of the Trans-figuration until after "the Son of Man should rise from the dead." Again this is an editorial setting, and introduces the dialogue about Elijah’s return.

9:12b "And how is it written of the Son of Man, that he should suffer many things and be set at naught?" It is noteworthy that Luke omits the whole pericope, also that the outlook of the pericope is the same as that of the passion announcements, and even agrees with them in style: the Son of Man is to "rise," not -- as elsewhere in the primitive tradition -- to "be raised"; but first he is to "suffer many things" -- a5 in 8:31. Lohmeyer, it is to be observed, brackets vs. 12b as a gloss.(Commentary, P. 183. n. 1.)

9:31 The second passion announcement.

10:33 The third passion announcement. These are clearly secondary, and are now generally recognized as such.

10:45 "The Son of Man did not come in order to be ministered to, but to minister, and to give his life as a ransom for many." This great climax to the central section, "the Way of the Cross," is either completely rewritten by Luke or omitted in favor of another saying, and is located in a wholly different place -- 22:27, "I am like a servant among you." Once again the theological outlook of the verse is apparent, especially in its second half, the "ransom" saying. It cites Jesus’ example, apparently in proof of the soundness of his teaching. If we take Luke’s parallel into account, it is probable that the saying, originally detached, circulated at first in the form which Luke retains. The parallelistic form of Luke 22:27 is completely convincing.

Thus far, with one exception, the sayings have all been clearly of a type for which "the Son of Man" and the first person singular, whether verb or pronoun, were interchangeable. (Matthew’s usage, for example in 16:13, is good evidence that this could still take place even at the late date of the composition of that Gospel.) We come now to a text that cannot be treated thus.

13:26 "Then they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds." This is practically a quotation from Dan. 7:13, and it occurs in the heart of the final section attributed to the Little Apocalypse -- forming in fact its climax. Here is the verse with which our study of the Son of Man sayings should begin if we were trying to rearrange them in chronological order and study them in their progressive adaptation to later church theology and devotion. The source and present location of the saying, as part of the Little Apocalypse, and the probability that the section once circulated without reference to the belief that Jesus was the Son of Man both point toward the probable origin of this type of Christology: it originated among those for whom the vision of Daniel was the authoritative statement of eschatological doctrine.

The three sayings that come next --

14:21a "The Son of Man goes as it is written of him" (cf. 9:12),

14:21b "Alas for the man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed" (some manuscripts omit "the Son of Man" here), and

14:41 "The Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners" (Luke again omits, and the Sinaitic Syriac manuscript of Matthew reads "I am delivered") -- all three of these sayings are clearly secondary. The first two are supper sayings, and read like devotional comments on the passion narrative; the third is closely allied to the passion announcements, especially the second, 9:31, It should also be observed that the saying occurs in the account of Gethsemane, which as a whole is generally viewed as secondary tradition. Finally, the only reason for the substitution of the title for the first person singular is the backward reference it affords to the passion announcements -- here is an example of what J. Weiss called Mark’s "pragmatism."

Finally we come to

14:62 "You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven." Like 13:26, this is based upon Dan. 7:13. It belongs in a section, vss. 55-65, which has frequently been pronounced secondary -- especially have vss. 61b-62 been thus criticized -- on the basis that no disciples were present at the Jewish "trial" and that the account is so patently at variance with all normal Jewish legal procedure, and also for other reasons which we will consider later. Further, the saying is in no sense germane to the question of the high priest, save upon the Christian assumption that the Son of Man is identical with "the Christ, the Son of the Blessed," a view the high priest and his colleagues could not be expected to share. The quotation seems to be appended to the simple and emphatic "I am," and to be added for the purpose of explaining how Jesus could be "the Christ" in spite of the nonfulfillment of the messianic expectation either then or later, including the period up to the date of Mark’s writing. The theological outlook of the quotation is practically identical with that of 8:38 and 9:1. This outlook, in all three places, is in turn identical with that of 13:26 -- and not only its origin, in Dan. 7:13, but also its point of entry into the early pre-Marcan tradition seems clear. It reflects the theology of those who thought of Jesus exclusively in apocalyptic terms, and were prepared not only to go through the tradition and substitute "the Son of Man" for his simple "I," but also to insert appropriate quotations or paraphrases of their favorite apocalyptic texts in order to give his life its appropriate setting -- as they assumed -- and his teaching its proper interpretation. Where this took place, we shall discuss in a later lecture.

5. Still other material was found and used by Mark, including some that is clearly legendary -- that is, "popular" stories handed down orally in extended form, and not necessarily all of them really Christian in origin -- for example the great legends of the Gerasene demoniac, 5:1-20; the death of John the Baptizer, 6:17-29; the walking on the sea, 6:45-52; and the cursing of the fig tree, 11:12-14, 20-25. The use of the term "legend" in this connection is one that is strictly accurate and at the same time severely limited in the field of literary and historical criticism. The term had its origin in the study of historical sources, chiefly the lives of the saints; and instead of emphasizing the unreliable or questionable character of the stories, it really suggests that a kernel of substantial fact is contained in them. As Martin Dibelius says:

A widely popular usage sees in the term "legend" the designation for false history. But that is not the meaning of the term. "Legends" mean, in the language of the Christian middle ages, stories of the life or death of a saint which were customarily read on the saint’s day (legenda means "what is to be read"). And this presupposes that legend has to do with a "saintly" life and a blessed death, by which the believer can be edified and inspired to emulation. For this reason the legend must be told in such a way that two things are apparent: how the saint was so holy that he controlled his surroundings; and how his life, from infancy, was under divine guidance and protection and hence was lifted out, by God Himself, from the mass of human misfortune.(The Message of Jesus Christ, p. 174 -- see the whole passage)

We may not be sure, in every case, what is the "kernel of substantial fact" in Mark’s legends, but we are certain that they were not spun out of thin air.

Thus grew our earliest Gospel, not as a literary composition by one skilled in historical or biographical writing, but as the transcript and ordered arrangement of the traditions current in the church of his day. It is a Western writing, Hellenistic, probably Roman; obviously written in Greek, and not, I believe, the translation of a completed work in a Semitic tongue; and yet resting back upon traditions that were certainly far older than its own date, undoubtedly Palestinian in origin, and circulating originally in the Aramaic language spoken by the common people of Galilee and Judea in the days of our Lord. The Aramaic substratum juts out repeatedly -- Boanerges, talithá kumi, effathá , korban, Abba, Hosannáh, for example. And so do certain Latin words: grabbatus (bed), legion, quadrans, denarius, speculator, centurion -- words not proving, perhaps, the Roman origin of the work, but certainly reflecting the Greco-Roman medium through which its traditions had passed.

To sum up the hypothesis briefly, then, the order of the "development" of the Gospel in its author’s own mind was perhaps as follows:

1. The passion narrative -- its basis derived from the common Christian tradition of Jesus’ last days in Jerusalem.

2. To this were prefaced the controversies with the Jewish authorities, leading up to the passion narrative, and explaining how Jesus came to be rejected by his own people.

3. The Petrine element was introduced into this combination, chiefly at the beginning of the narrative -- adding much of the "vividness" for which Mark is famous.

4. In order to give examples of Jesus’ teaching, certain passages from Q -- or from the common oral tradition of the collection of Jesus’ sayings designated by that symbol -- were added, apparently from memory rather than by citation of a document. These are chiefly sayings relating to discipleship, a subject of great importance in Q.

5. The Little Apocalypse was added for a similar reason: it satisfied in some degree the urgent demand for Jesus’ own answer to the question of the date of the Parousia and the "signs of the end." It was of course assumed by Mark to contain authentic teaching of Jesus.

6. Finally, the mass of current oral tradition -- not so extensive in Rome, probably, as in Palestine and Syria -- was drawn upon for additional material upon numerous points as the narrative proceeded.

7. The whole took shape -- a more or less predetermined form, considering that the passion narrative, the controversies, and the Little Apocalypse were probably already in fixed oral if not partly documentary form -- it took shape in the author’s own mind in something like the order just sketched; and in the actual writing of it the author supplied the introductions, summaries, transitions, and moralizing applications so characteristic of his work -- the last-named so unlike the style and method of our Lord!

Thus grew the Marcan Gospel, not, I think, by successive stages, but in its author’s own conception before he sat down and wrote it out at length, laboriously and painstakingly: its growth is the growth of its materials and sources, not the repeated redaction either of the author himself or of a succession of later "hands." No writing in the New Testament bears more clearly the marks of unity of authorship, from its brief title and swiftly moving first sentences to its abrupt and perhaps fragmentary close.

Such is the light which a study of the form and structure of the Gospel of Mark throws upon its purposes, its method of composition, its materials, and its sources. If it no longer betrays "the freshness and vividness of original composition," at least it bears the marks of the hard age in which it arose, reflects the circumscribed outlook of its author and first readers, and reveals most clearly the paucity of the materials at the author’s disposal -- especially for a presentation of Jesus’ teaching. We are a whole generation, and more, removed from the events described in its pages, and many leagues removed geographically. Its author lives in another world than the Palestine of Jesus’ days -- one can scarcely believe that he ever saw Palestine, or knew Judaism and its sacred Scriptures intimately and sympathetically. He may, of course, have known John Mark, as well as Peter; he may, indeed, have been John Mark; but I should feel much more certain in describing him as a Roman Christian -- though possibly not born in Rome -- who reflected at an early day the somewhat cold and unimaginative outlook characteristic of at least a major strain in the heritage of that ancient church. Yet such as it is -- and the more certainly so, the more clearly we recognize just what the book is -- it remains an extremely valuable document of primitive Western Christianity; though it by no means provides us with all we wish to know about the life and teaching of our Lord, or the life and teaching, activities, and beliefs, of the early church.( These paragraphs are taken from The Growth of the Gospels, pp. 136-39. See also Weiss, The History of Primitive Christianity (1937), chap. xxii, § 4 (II, 687 ff.)).

The view I have been expounding may seem to some persons to be inadequate, and a poor substitute for the old-fashioned one which made Mark the secretary and amanuensis of an apostle, writing down Peter’s fresh and vivid recollections of the Master. On the contrary, if I may hazard a personal testimony, this "Multiple Source Hypothesis" of modern criticism, and especially of form criticism, seems to me definitely superior to the older view. In place of the testimony of one man, we have the "social" tradition of a whole community, the widely shared possession of a whole group -- of two groups, in fact, the Palestinian and the Roman. In place of one individual’s interpretation of Christ we have a tradition which shines like a shaft of light through the refracting, expanding prism of a rich and varied religious experience, and by its many-splendored radiance begins to prove how much was contained in the apparently simple and single, but really complex and manifold, manifestation of the divine mystery -- the revelation of the mystery hid from past ages, the message of God through Jesus Christ, his Son, our Lord.

The Gospel may be outlined, on the basis of this analysis of its contents and sources, as follows:

Introduction -- 1 :1-13

I. Jesus in Galilee -- 1:14-9:50

a) About the Sea of Galilee -- 1:14-5:43; including the controversies in 2:1-3:6 (plus 3:22-30), and the collection of parables in chap. 4.

b) Wider journeyings -- 6:l-9:50. The section 7:24-8:26 might be called Mark’s "Great Insertion," (The Growth of the Gospels, p. 140) following 7:1-23, in which Jesus rejects the external requirements of the Law and then turns to the Gentiles.(So Johannes Weiss.) It also includes the controversy over signs, 8:11-12, and the two apparently parallel narratives of the journey in 6:34-7:37 and 8:1-26. This is followed by the section on "the Way of the Cross," 8:27-10:45, with a nucleus of discipleship sayings in 9:33-50. These various groups were probably pre-Marcan collections of material.

II. On the way to Jerusalem -- chap. 10

III. In Jerusalem -- chaps. 11-12; including the second collection of controversies, 11:27-12:40

IV. The apocalyptic discourse -- chap.13; including material from the "Little Apocalypse," in vss. 6-8, 14-20, 24-27, and possibly 31. There was no other place for his material than here, unless the whole discourse was to be made postresurrection -- as in some of the later apocrypha.

V. The passion narrative -- chaps. 14-15

VI. The evidence of the Resurrection -- 16:1-8

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