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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 4: The Apostolic Preaching


The view of the development of Markís gospel set forth in these lectures takes it for granted that the Gospel grew backwards, so to speak. The earliest nucleus of the Gospel was the passion narrative. To this was prefaced the account of the ministry of Jesus as a kind of bridge-approach, leading up to the great crucial and transforming week in human history. The controversies explained the opposition to Jesus. The sayings illustrated his teaching -- the "Son of Man sayings" in particular explaining Jesusí own view of his death, and expressing the earliest attitude of the church to the death of Jesus: his death was no blind whim of fate but the voluntarily accepted will of God, and it had resulted in the working out of Godís purpose for the salvation of many. Other materials which Mark found in the tradition and made use of in his book showed Jesus in his career of healing and teaching, accompanied by his disciples -- the group whom he "made apostles"(Mark 3:14, 16 ff.) and "appointed" to be the founders of the church. But Mark is not writing history or biography, nor even giving an account of Jesusí teaching; he is writing an apology, an explanation of the death of the Messiah, and the passion narrative is in his mind from the beginning.(Mark 2:20; 3:6; etc.)

Perhaps in this preoccupation of the author is to be discovered the significance of a clause -- which no one understands! -- found in the very first chapter: that during the temptation in the wilderness Jesus "was with the wild animals." (Mark 1:13) Just as his followers had lately, at Rome, been forced into the arena to face the wild beasts, so the Master himself had faced them -- and in facing them, and flouting Satan, he had accepted his martyrdom from the start. It is not suggested that Jesus fought the beasts and overcame them, physically. Perhaps they were considered, as often in Jewish folklore, to be "materializations" of demons, or as possessed by them -- the wild djinn of the waste, with Satan as their owner and prince. If so, no doubt Mark -- or whoever first so described our Lordís sojourn in the wilderness -- thought that Jesus overawed them, and was among them like Adam, the first earthly man, in the Garden, or like Daniel, unharmed in the den.(Both this pericope and the saying, "I saw Satan fall as lightning from heaven," Luke 10:18, reflect the same point of view as that of the old section on the binding of the strong man, Mark 3:27.) They would not dare attack the Son of Man, the divine "second Man who is from heaven," as Paul had called him.(I Cor. 15:47)

The late Professor Bacon held that the Gospel of Mark centers, like an ellipse, about two great focal ideas, symbolized by the "two sacraments of the gospel, Baptism and the Supper of the Lord": the first half is the preaching of repentance, the second half the preparation for death, the Via Dolorosa of the Messiah, his crucifixion and death. Professor Baconís suggestion is illuminating, but the Gospel scarcely divides that neatly. Both ideas are there -- but both are present throughout; one flows into the other. The whole Gospel deals with the question, Why did Jesus die? This was a question which had been asked from the outset of the Christian movement. Paul calls it the "stumbling block," "the scandal," of the cross.(Gal. 5:11) If Jesus was the Messiah, Godís Son, why then had he died the shameful death on the cross, the last penalty of a criminal in expiation of his misdeeds? How, in the first place, had it come about historically, and as the consequence of what series of dire, unfortunate events? And further, how had it come to pass in the eternal counsels of God? To both forms of the question Mark undertakes to provide an answer: He died (1) because the Jewish leaders rejected him, and out of envy (Mark 15:10) delivered him up to Pilate. The reason for their envy is clear from the series of controversies which Mark gives. For he had worsted them in argument, and his following had continued in spite of all their efforts to oppose him. He died, moreover, (2) because he willed to die, to lay down his life a ransom for many.(Mark 10:45; 14:24; cf. John 10:18) He died, finally, (3) because it was the will of God, and so it had been written of him in the ancient, inspired scriptures.(Mark 8:31; 9:12, 31; 10:33; 14:21, 36.) It had to be so, for God willed it: . . . . The basic and fundamental structure of the Gospel thus had a very clear and decisive motive. We may call it apologetic: but Mark simply had to answer the questions which were in the minds of all his readers, Jewish and Gentile, Christian and non-Christian.(The latter part of this paragraph is taken from The Growth of the Gospels, p. 108.)

Thus it was no accident that the Gospel grew around -- or grew up to -- the old traditional passion narrative embedded now in chapters 14-15. The same place had been held by the passion narrative -- that is, by some account or other of the death of Jesus -- in the apostolic preaching from its very start. It is taken for granted everywhere in Paul, whose letters are the oldest Christian writings we possess; and Paul implies that it was his oral teaching and preaching as well -- in his reproach of the Galatians, for example, "before whose very eyes Jesus had been crucified" in his preaching,(Gal. 3:1.) and in his confession to the Corinthians that he had determined to "know nothing among you save Jesus Christ and him crucified." (I Cor. 2:2. See also I Cor. 15:1-4.) It is found in the speeches in the first part of Acts -- as historic fact, as a strange mystery, not yet as the luminous and revealing declaration of divine grace which we find in Paul. It is found in that summary of the early preaching in Philippians 2:6-11, perhaps quoted from some creed-like hymn of the early Gentile churches.(See F. C. Porter, The Mind of Christ in Paul (1930); also Ernst Lohmeyerís new commentary in the Meyer Series (1930) and his Heidelberg Academy paper, "Kyrios Jesus" (1928).) So Professor Dibelius views it, and so I have translated his rendering:

He lived a divine existence,
but thought nothing of grandeur
nor of the glory of divine nature;
he gave up glory and grandeur,
taking a poor existence in exchange --
became humanlike in form,
and humanlike in bearing.
He chose renunciation,
obedient to death --
to the death upon the cross.
Therefore God exalted him to highest glory
and gave him the name above all names. . . .

(The Message of Jesus Christ, p. 5; see also his commentary in Lietzmannís Handbuch (3rd ed., 1937), esp. the long notes on pp. 72-74 and 79-82. The late B. W. Bacon pointed out in his The Gospel of the Hellenists (1933) the frequency of ten- and twelve-line hymns in ancient religious literature; see Pt. IV, pp. 311 ff.)

To put it briefly, the message of the gospel was an "evangelical" message from the beginning. It was the message of the Kingdom -- which had been Jesusí own message, of course, from the outset of his ministry (Mark 1:14-15) -- but it was also the message of the crucified Messiah, the Messiah Jesus who had died and risen from death, and whose death and resurrection were -- or rather was, as one continuous act -- the great crucial step in the inauguration of Godís Kingdom, on the part of God himself. Something had to be got out of the way, some obstacle that lay in Godís very path; and the Cross was the instrument of its removal, the tool by which the stone was rolled away -- "it was a very great one !" To put it still another way, overstating the case but perhaps making it somewhat clearer: Jesusí gospel was the gospel of the Kingdom; the apostolic gospel was the gospel of the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah; and yet the latter was believed to be the continuation and proclamation of the former. In opening the Gospel of Mark with what perhaps became later its title, "Beginning of the Gospel [of Jesus Christ the Son of God]," its author certainly recognized no distinction between the gospel of Jesus and the gospel about Jesus. That is a modern distinction! (The warning set forth by Henry J. Cadbury in his book, The Peril of Modernizing Jesus (1937), applies also to the Gospels.) Mark assumed that the two were one -- and so did everyone else in the apostolic age! If it had not been so, many a passage in the Gospels might have been worded differently; and we should have had not only less of interpretation in the record of Jesusí life and teaching but also, probably, even less of a record!

Let us turn back once more to the speech of Peter in the house of Cornelius at Caesarea, given in Acts 10:37-43.

You know what has been taking place in the land of the Jews, following "the Baptism" preached by John -- how it all began in Galilee with Jesus of Nazareth. God anointed him with holy Spirit and with power, and he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. (We are witnesses to all he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem!) And they put him to death, hanging him on a tree. Then God raised him up, on the third day, and let him appear visibly -- not to all the people but to witnesses chosen in advance by God, that is to us And he [God] charged us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one who is appointed by God to be the judge of the living and dead. All the prophets bear witness to him, that through his name everyone who believes in him shall receive remission of sins.(See Dibelius, The Message of Jesus Christ, p. 4; also my "historical origins of the Church," Anglican Theological Review 21:190 ff.)

Most of the main features of the apostolic preaching are to be found here, in brief summary -- and as some of them were still being stated in the middle of the second century when the old Roman baptismal formula, the basis of our so-called Apostlesí Creed, came into use: John and "the Baptism" he preached, which was all along "the beginning of the gospel"; (Acts 1:22; Mark 1:1. See The Gospel of the Kingdom, chap. 111.) Jesusí anointing by the holy Spirit, and his consequent power over the demons, over diseases, and even over death; his ministry of compassion and help; his death at Jerusalem, through the "envy" and hatred of the "rulers," that is, the Jewish authorities who denounced him before Pilate and so procured his death by crucifixion as an insurrectionist and disturber; his resurrection on the third day, when he became Messiah or Son of God and entered into his glory;(Cf. Rom. 1:3; Luke 24:26.) the message of forgiveness of sins "in his name"; his future coming to judge the living and the dead; the divine choice and calling of the apostolic "witnesses" to these events, who are the bearers of the new message of salvation; and the divine attestation in the words of the prophets of old. These are the main features of the apostolic message; they represent the earliest interpretation of the prophetic mission, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and the earliest proclamation of the message of salvation -- that is, forgiveness of sins, preservation through the approaching crisis of the "last things," and safety in the judgment. One cannot call it a system of theology. It is too simple for that. Instead it is a set of convictions growing out of (1) Jesusí gospel of the Kingdom; (2) the apostlesí testimony to Jesusí death, resurrection, and exaltation; and (3) their experience of the outpoured Spirit. Call it "mystical" if you like -- though that surely is not a very good description of it -- but whatever the true and adequate word for this tremendous apostolic experience, it is perfectly clear that the earliest Christianity we know had a twofold basis, and stood upon two feet, history and experience. The history was there, in the oral traditions of Jesusí life and death; and the experience was equally real, and could now be shared anywhere and by anyone, by Saul the persecutor, by Gentile centurions and treasurers and simple men of Cyprus and Cyrene and Antioch, by pagan Galatians, and by cosmopolitan Corinthians and Romans -- Jews and Greeks, bond and free. There were no limits to the range of this experience of the risen, glorified Christ.

It is so to this day; for we greatly lessen the effectiveness of the Christian message if we insist upon getting it all inside the four walls of past history, ignoring the present reality of the risen, glorified Christ who still has words to say to his church and to the world through his Spirit.(See my "The Spiritual Christ," Journal of Biblical Literature 54:1-15; also the "Note on Christology" in my Frontiers of Christian Thinking (1935), and my essay, The Significance of Critical Study of the Gospels for Religious Thought Today," in the volume presented to Professor Harris Franklin Rall, Theology and Modern Life, ed. Paul A. Schilpp (1940).) Moreover, we shall never catch the real ethos of the New Testament until we abandon our exaggerated "historicism" and recognize that some things were spoken and done by Christ after the death on the cross had ended his earthly career. The words of Christian prophets, speaking in his name, were undoubtedly inspired by his Spirit. The interpretations of his life and teachings set forth by the "teachers" of the early church were legitimate interpretations, the expansion and reformulation of his sayings were legitimate expansions and reformulations, (Esp., e.g., in the central section of Mark, "the Way of the Cross," 8:27-10:45. On the importance of the teacher in the early church -- distinct from the preacher -- see B. S. Easton, "The First Evangelic Tradition," Journal of Biblical Literature, 50:148-55; F. V. Filson, "The Christian Teacher in the First Century," ibid., 60:317-28.) not because they were logically valid, or because they represented justifiable historical inferences as to what Jesus must have thought and said, but because they were inspired by his Spirit and sprang out of the living tradition, out of the vital stream of religious experience which came historically, and still came spiritually, from him. Unless we are prepared to grant the reality of the Spirit, and the valid basis of this primitive Christian experience,(See P. G. S. Hopwood, The Religious Experience of the Primitive Church (1937). I fear we shall not bring much back with us from our critical forays in the field of New Testament history, literature, and religion. That principle -- the primary and indisputable reality of the Spirit, to be apprehended by faith, and genuinely to be known through direct human experience -- is the vital spark of evangelicalism, today no less than it has always been.(The principle is also recognized in Catholicism, though by no means to the same extent, and combined with certain other principles, institutional and theological, which counterbalance it.)

As we view our religion, Christianity is essentially and always a doctrine of grace and presupposes the reality of the divine Spirit, one with the risen, glorified Christ himself. It has sometimes been represented as primarily a doctrine of man, of his finiteness, his sin, his unworthiness in Godís sight, his inability to please God, indeed of his actual incapacity to receive or benefit by divine grace. But in the view of evangelical Christians -- and that also includes Methodists and Anglicans -- our theology is not anthropocentric, or hamarto-centric, but theocentric, Christocentric, gratia-centric. And our religion is forever a saving faith. This, we believe, was true of the earliest gospel, as it was first proclaimed in Galilee and throughout the world in apostolic days. If the Christian message had been a series of intellectual claims or affirmations, supported by the miracles of Jesus, let us say, as the complete evidence of the truth of these affirmations, then assent to the truth of Christianity would have been simply an act of the rational intellect, satisfied with the evidence thus adduced and subscribing without reserve to the various formulae of affirmation. But faith is never mere intellectual assent; it was not so in "the first days of the gospel" any more than it is today. Faith means believing beyond the range of evidence -- not in spite of the evidence, but beyond it. Faith means the discovery of further evidence, higher in kind and of a subtler validity than mere outward proofs. As virtue is its own reward, so faith supplies, in a similar way, its own verification. This does not mean that it supplies outward and visible proofs; the evidence is still the spiritual things "which are spiritually apprehended." A faith which rests upon tangible demonstration is a contradiction in terms, and is really "unfaith, clamoring to be coined to faith by proof," as the poet said. Faith means trust, adventure, self-committal; and its evidences are still the "things not seen."

Hence we may hold that the earliest Gospel, like the latest, was an interpretation. Mark undertook to interpret Jesus as the "Son of Man" of apocalyptic hopes, and John later undertook to interpret him as the eternal Logos veiled in flesh, while Matthew and Luke interpreted him as the Jewish Messiah or the new Lawgiver of ransomed Israel. The one whom they thus interpreted, in various categories of first-century thought, is the one whom we also must interpret -- but equally from the standpoint of faith, not proof. For the progress of discipleship is still that of growing faith -- as Paul described it, "from faith to faith."

The Gospel of Mark, I have tried to show, is a community possession, a "church book," the transcript of a living body of tradition then in circulation, rather than a private literary composition. It was written for the churchís use, and it rested back upon the churchís tradition and faith. It was anonymous from the start, and made no claim to literary consideration or quality. I doubt if it was to be found in the bookstalls of the capital. None of the littérateurs of the time ever laid eyes on it. It was a Volksbuch, circulating in private among the oppressed, despised, and persecuted handful of Christians -- though copies were made, after a time, and carried to other Christian communities (See K. L. Schmidt, Eucharistêrion für Gunkel (1923). See also Donald W. Riddle, Early Christian Life as Reflected in Its Literature (1936) and "Early Christian Hospitality: a Factor in the Gospel Transmission," Journal of Biblical Literature, 57:141-154.) It probably got to Asia Minor and to Syria about as soon as anywhere else. As a transcript of a living community tradition, the Gospel of Mark relies not only upon the early passion narrative and the oral records of Jesusí life and teachings, some of which may already have been gathered into little collections, sequences, groups of sayings; it relies also upon the apostolic experience which supplemented and interpreted those traditions. The church, like Paul, aimed to know Christ not merely "after the flesh" but as a risen, glorified spirit: "to know him -- and the power of his resurrection." Hence the background against which we must study the Gospel of Mark is twofold: the evangelic tradition, which we considered in the preceding chapter, and the apostolic faith and its formulation in preaching, which we are considering in the present one.

I said a little while ago that Mark had the passion narrative in mind from the very beginning of his book; now we must add that the passion narrative meant to him, as to every other early Christian, the events leading up immediately to Jesusí resurrection and exaltation. And that meant exaltation as Messiah -- not a mere reanimation of his body; not one more resuscitation of a dead person, doomed to die again, like Lazarus or the youth at Nain; not a ghostly apparition, as evidence, after a fashion (but evidence always to be doubted!), of human survival of bodily death or of the immortality of the soul. For Mark, as for the church of his time, Jesusí resurrection meant resurrection and glorification as Messiah, as the celestial Son of Man.(See Weiss, History of Primitive Christianity (1937) , Bk. 1; B.W. Bacon, The Apostolic Message (1925); C.H. Dodd, The Apostolic Preaching (1936).This is the view reflected in all our earliest documents, in the early chapters of Acts, and in the Gospel of Mark. It is the view which Paul "received" by tradition,(I Cor. 15:1-7; Rom. 1:1-4; etc.) and which forms the substratum of his whole teaching and theology. It is presupposed, as the very earliest formulation of Christian teaching, throughout the New Testament.("See W. Bousset, Kyrios Christos (3rd ed., 1926), chap. 1; B. W. Bacon, The Apostolic Message (1925); C. H. Dodd, The Apostolic Preaching (1936). And it forms the basis of the theology of Markís Gospel -- so far as it has a theology -- as we shall see in a later chapter.

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