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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 12: Epilogue


The consequences of Markís embodiment and editing of the evangelic tradition in his brief apologia for Jesusí Messiahship were far-reaching. It is not quite accurate to say that he took the gospel of Jesus -- that is, the message which Jesus himself had preached and taught -- and made it over into the gospel about Jesus; for that is what the Christian message had been all along, from the very beginning of the Christian movement, ever since the assembling of the disciples after the Resurrection and their first proclamation of the good news about Jesus. But Mark, or those who formulated the message in the terms which we read in his Gospel, undertook to give it an interpretation in accordance with which Jesus had already been Messiah, and had been recognized and confessed as Messiah, even during his earthly life, before the Resurrection when -- according to the primitive traditional belief -- he "became" or "was manifested" as such. What Mark undertakes to do is to prove that Jesus did not need to wait until the Resurrection in order "to manifest his glory," as the later Johannine Gospel uses the phrase. He was already Messiah as he went about Galilee; for he had been proclaimed the Son of God at his Baptism; the demons had recognized him as divine; the disciples had confessed him to be the Messiah, their conviction voiced by their spokesman, Peter; at the Transfiguration the chosen three "beheld his glory," to use again the more explicit Johannine idiom, ordinarily hidden but now momentarily revealed; finally even the centurion in charge of the crucifixion had confessed him "a Son of God." Though Jesus had not, it is true, announced himself to Israel as the Messiah, and had forbidden the demons to make him known -- since they knew him" -- and had even commanded his disciples to be silent about their recognition of his Messiahship, nevertheless, at the last, in the high priestís court, he had admitted unequivocally that he was the one who should sit at the right hand of the divine Power (God) and come with the clouds of heaven.(Mark 14:62) As we have seen, this theory of the messianic secret, or rather of Jesusí secret Messiahship, was Markís answer to the question which his fundamental thesis, that Jesus was already Messiah during his earthly ministry, at once suggested:

Why then was he not recognized. why was he put to death? It is almost as if Mark had undertaken to answer the questions Paul had put, in his letter to the Roman Christians -- Markís own church -- "Did they not hear? . . . . Did Israel not know?" (Romans 10:16-21) Had they known and understood, they would never have put to death the Lord of glory. It was surely in ignorance that the Jews and their rulers had put him to death, as the old tradition affirmed.(Acts 3:17) But this ignorance was in part at least the result of a mysterious blindness that had come upon them as a judgment for their sins, their initial unresponsiveness mounting eventually to active hatred and a "blind" fury of malice by which they attributed everything he said or did to the inspiration of Beelzebul, the chief of devils. Even the disciples had not wholly escaped its toxic effects: their eyes had been "holden," they had "slumbered" during the crucial hour of their Lordís career in Gethsemane, and at his arrest they had "all left him, and fled"; Peter, their leader and spokesman, had even denied that he so much as knew his Master. This is part of Markís answer. The other part was that Jesus had commanded them to be silent about even the little they had guessed or discovered of his secret: Peterís confession and the vision in the mount. "And he charged them that they should tell no man about him."(Mark 8:30) "He commanded them that they should tell no man what they had seen, save when the Son of Man should have risen from the dead." (Mark 9:9) This is not the full formulation of the answer as the author of the Fourth Gospel was someday to give it (Cf. John 2:22; 12:16; 14:26; 2:17.) namely that the disciples did not really understand either Jesusí words or their own experience with him until after the Resurrection; but the idea is implicit in Mark, and the explanation is already moving in the "Johannine" direction -- John only makes more explicit what Markís theory has already presupposed.

But it was not only the theory of the messianic secret which was of such grave consequence, which did such violence to the older tradition, and which had to be explained and corrected by the later evangelists -- and explained away by John. It was the basic thesis of Mark, to which the theory of the secret was an interpretative corollary, which was of the gravest consequence not only for the later New Testament writings but also for the whole development of Christian doctrine and devotion, and has been so to this day. For it shifted the whole center of gravity in the gospel; it placed in the forefront of consideration, as the real subject of the gospel, the person of Jesus rather than the Kingdom of God.(For Jews, perhaps even for many early Jewish Christians, the central figure in the Kingdom was certainly not the Messiah, but God himself. See The Gospel of the Kingdom [1940]). Stated bluntly, Mark substituted a theological idea of the person of Jesus for the Kingdom of God, and interpreted "the gospel of the Kingdom" to mean the message -- or indeed the "mystery" (Mark 4:11) -- of Jesusí Messiahship. Perhaps this was not surprising in a Roman Gospel, in a "defense and confirmation of the gospel" meant for Greco-Roman readers, whether converted Christians or still pagans, in a Hellenistic, Western, non-Jewish, non-Oriental apologia for the Christian faith. Whereas the East was interested in Wisdom, the divine Law, and the Kingship of God, the less abstractly minded, more concretely thinking and believing West -- it will be said -- demanded the adoration of a person, of a divine-human being, a Son of God, as the center of its religious loyalties. So it had already been for Paul, and perhaps for the gospel tradition even before Mark wrote -- though there are passages in Markís Gospel that run counter to this view -- for example, "Why callest thou me good?" (Mark 10:18) Paul presupposes it in the very language he takes over from earlier Hellenistic Christianity, for which Christ was already v, "Lord," that is, the head of a cult. Indeed, the change in emphasis may go back farther still, and Markís representation may be viewed more as a result than as a cause of this tendency; the initial movement in this direction was perhaps the result of the resurrection and glorification of Jesus, and the consequent centrality which he possessed for the salvation of his followers. And so it has been ever since: the person of Jesus, which is really the final mystery, and not to be approached until all other considerations have been weighed -- his teaching, his ethics, the new way of life which he opened up to men, his revelation of the character and the purpose of God -- the person of Jesus rather than his teaching or his revelation has been placed in the forefront of Christian consideration, and logicians trained in Western metaphysics and law have gone at the problem in a way unthinkable for the world in which Jesus lived, in a way unthinkable for Jesus himself.

It is the person, not the personality, of Jesus which is the center of interest. Mark, like other ancient writers generally, has no interest in "personality," which is a very modern conception. And it is the "person" of Jesus as a theological idea, not as a historical person, the subject of biography, which he thus sets at the center of Christian thought. Perhaps the only way open, historically speaking, if the church was to bring home to men the paramount and final importance of Jesusí revelation, was to emphasize the theological idea of his person; only so could this revelation be made clear and authoritative to the Greco-Roman world. Thus the gospel was concentrated in the person of Jesus; the hope of the Kingdom receded and became eventually only another name for "heaven," the other world, the state of bliss beyond death, or, as in Thomas Aquinas, a term for the divine theodicy in general -- though in truth this interpretation really emphasized a fundamental element in the whole biblical conception, in Jesusí teaching as elsewhere -- and thus an intellectual concept of the person of Jesus tended to become central for Christian doctrine, theology, and devotion, rather than the person of God, his sovereignty and his redemptive will, his wisdom and his love.

One result of the process -- which certainly Mark would not have encouraged, though his work started the development in that direction -- is the sentimental, saccharine, sickly-sweet Jesuolatry that has mistaken strong emotion for an evidence of religion, has softened the ethical fiber and beclouded the whole theological sky of certain areas of Christianity. This worship of Jesus has tended to crowd out the sturdier, less exuberant faith in the living God, whose mercies are over all his works but whose judgments are in all the earth. In consequence, God the Father became once more the veiled deity, the dark Fate or Destiny standing behind the throne of Zeus -- as conceived by many generations of earlier Mediterranean religion. In much the same way the worship of the Virgin later supplanted that of the Son, in some quarters. We may not quarrel with the fact; but the whole development, beginning with a concentration upon the idea of Jesusí own person as of central importance for religious faith, certainly represents a shift in emphasis from Jesusí own teaching. The reality of the Spiritual Christ is of course recognized throughout apostolic Christianity. This was no creation of the Gospel of Mark -- indeed, Mark steps back from it, in the act of trying to prove that Jesus was secretly the divine Son of Man during his life upon earth. For Markís "theological idea" was not so much the present reality of the divine person, the exalted Lord of his community, nor yet was it the glorious and unique historical person, Jesus of Nazareth, but the mysterious, half-divine, apocalyptic "Son of Man" who had lived incognito upon earth, died, and risen again.

No doubt the church has been right in acknowledging the deity of Christ and the Incarnation as the fullest measure of the divine revelation of which human nature is capable; though it should be pointed out that the church as a rule undertook to stand fast and to hold the ground of the traditional, historical faith, enshrined in the New Testament, and -- as the histories of dogma make clear-only took over metaphysical definitions which had already been hammered out on the anvils of logical and exegetical disputation. Often these definitions were fashioned in the shops of the heretics themselves -- weapons sometimes as dangerous to those who fashioned or wielded them as they were to their opponents! But even so, the church has still retained, through all the long centuries of its history, a lingering conviction that Jesus was primarily a Teacher; and it has steadily acted upon this haunting assurance in preferring the Gospel of Matthew, above the others, in its liturgy. For the Gospel of Matthew "corrected" the Gospel of Mark, in the process of editing and revising it, by incorporating the teaching of Jesus, and by representing him as the Revealer of the Kingdom, the expounder of the New Law -- the Messiah, indeed, but a Messiah who appeared first of all as the Teacher of Israel. In some passages he appears as the Second Moses, the Prophet par excellence, the ideal Scribe and teacher of religion.(Cf. Matt. 23:2-10; etc.) Luke also incorporated Jesusí teaching; but Lukeís conception of the Messiah is still in large measure the Marcan "Son of God," the King Messiah of the popular hope combined with the secret "Son of Man" of Markís interpretation.(Although he does not really grasp Markís theory of the hidden Son of Man. See chap. vi above.) Only Lukeís careful literary art obscures the fact that he has combined the two ideas, though he retains more of the former than of the latter -- a fact illuminated and explained by the hypothesis of Proto-Luke. ( Proto-Luke is the combination of Q and L; into this combination the author later inserted the Gospel of Mark in seven sections. See The Growth of the Gospels, pp. 157-75.)

Among these portraits of Christ, the Gospel of John assumes the Marcan thesis-or its equivalent -- as proved, but ignores its corollary, the secret Messiahship; or rather, the secret is not the result of Jesusí purpose, but is due to the blindness and hatred of "the Jews." Jesus is not so much the strange, unknown "Son of Man" -- "Who is this Son of Man ?" is a question "the Jews" ask (John 12:34) -- as he is the "Messiah," the "King of Israel";(John 1:41, 49.) on the contrary, from the very outset, far from concealing his identity he proclaims it boldly and unequivocally, and backs up his self -- proclamation with a series of great "signs" or epiphanies, manifestations of his "glory." The unreality of this procedure, from the historical point of view, is obvious at once -- history and interpretation have not been simply interwoven; another figure is required! They have been stirred together in a mortar, and the two elements have completely neutralized each other in a compound which is neither history nor interpretation, but mystical rhapsody and poetry of devotion, not so much a theology as a half-Gnostic Christian theosophy -- history turned inside out in order to reveal its inner meaning, but ceasing to be history in the process.(See The Growth of the Gospels, chap. viii, "Hellenistic Mysticism and the fourth Gospel.")

And yet how precious this book has been, and still is, to countless numbers of Christian believers, saints and martyrs and ordinary people! It sums up, as no other book has ever done, the total impression of Christ upon men: he is the Light of the World, the Lamb of God, the Resurrection and the Life. You cannot start with Jesus, if you take him seriously, without inevitably taking him into consideration in all your deepest thought about God and about the whole problem of human life and destiny. In the end, all our thought of God and the world, and of ourselves as well, has to be brought into relation to him, to be judged by the light of his revelation of the Father. No book in all the world makes this clearer than the Gospel of John. And it is no accident that John has been the favorite Gospel of countless Christians, rather than Mark; or that, indeed, Mark has always been the least popular of the four, with its mysterious, forbidding, really unapproachable "Son of Man" conception in place of the Jesus of Galilee.

It is a long way from the gospel of Jesus in Galilee to the Gospel of John in the Hellenistic setting of early second century Christianity, at war on all fronts with an unbelieving world and not least with "the Jews," who are now viewed as implacable and inveterate foes.(See Ernest Colwell, John Defends the Gospel [1936]) Somewhere about midway in this course of development we find the Gospel of Mark. What it took for granted in the way of earlier tradition and interpretation, and what it undertook to do in the way of further interpretation, combined to make it for all later Christian doctrine and devotion one of the most important -- in some respects one of the most fateful -- books ever written. For it began the process which eventually read back into the lifetime of Jesus the later doctrines, institutions, sacraments, and even to some extent the canon law of the church -- notably in Catholicism, but also in large measure in the older, historic Protestantism.( See Friedrich Heiler, Der Katholizismus (1923), p. 17.) How different the story would have been if, under the influence of Paul, the founding of the church, its organization and institutions, and the origin of its faith had been attributed to the exalted Christ, guiding his church through the Spirit!

What is the meaning of this earliest Gospel for our time? In its own time, and first of all, it set forth the message of salvation to men and women who lived in a world not unlike our own; indeed the "world," that is, human society, has not changed very much in nineteen centuries, and the message of salvation is as greatly needed now as then, or ever. Man is in reality, many persons now tell us, a biological species, with a superficial adaptation to those artificial conditions of life which we call civilization; but under his skin, and beneath the thin top level of his inquiring, aggressive, clever mind, he is still what he has always been -- an acquisitive, competitive, power-seeking, warring beast, with which the divine Spirit must still "strive," even as at the beginning of human history.(Gen. 6:3) The tyrannies and destructions of our day are really the same in kind as those that made human life either a shambles or a prison house, or both, in the days of Nero when this earliest Gospel was written. Its author looked forward to the end of such a society; like the Jewish apocalyptists, like the author of the passage in Genesis, (Gen. 6:5-7) he could see no future for mankind but only the impending cataclysm. Out of the ruins, once more, God would raise up those who should truly serve and obey him; and this divine Rule was to be inaugurated -- so Mark and his fellow Christians believed -- when the Son of Man, who was identical with Jesus crucified, raised from the dead, and exalted to heaven, should return on the clouds to hold the Last Judgment, when he should come "in power" with the angels of God to reign with his elect over a renewed earth. And back of the earliest written Gospel, which partly presupposes this view, partly expresses it, lies the tradition of the primitive Christian communities. That tradition likewise enshrined a hope of salvation. It was an eschatological gospel -- an assured hope of things to come.

Moreover, back of this primitive tradition was the life and the teaching of One who had himself lived manís life, under the conditions of growing political oppression and injustice and of the threatened extinction of Jewish faith and worship and of the whole Jewish way of life. Again, the conditions were not unlike those of today, certainly over large areas of our world. But Jesusí teaching was a message of hope and of assured salvation: it was no screaming apocalypse, savagely threatening the divine vengeance upon all oppressors and apostates; instead it was the description, in words, and the demonstration, by example, of a way of life which men might lead even under the impossible conditions of the present.(See Lily Dougall and Cyril W. Emmet, The Lord of Thought (1922). On the other hand, it was no optimistic view of progressive human betterment, grounded in a naive confidence in the better nature of men; it was centered wholly and decisively in the nature of God and in his just and loving purpose. Jesus looked into the future and saw the rising tension of his day culminating in the destruction and desolation of the people and the land he loved; like the prophets of old, he foresaw the doom of judgment meted out, not on the heathen only but upon his own nation, its leaders, its people, its temple. But, he insisted, that dire destiny might even now be averted by repentance, by a complete return to God, by setting the Reign of God above all other considerations and goals of effort.(Matt. 6:33) And he proclaimed a way of life in accordance with the will of God which, if Israel followed it, would make possible not only immediate salvation for the individual here and now, under the present conditions of tyranny and oppression, but also his survival in the future -- whether in this world or beyond death -- and perhaps, by the mercy of God, it would result in the survival of the nation, though not as a political entity but as a religious group.

Jesusí "program," if we may call it that, was never tried on a wide scale, as it was intended to be tried; that is, the gospel was the divine message to all Israel, but all Israel did not hearken, and only a few responded. (Rom. 10:16; John 1:11-13) Nor has it ever been tried, on the full scale, by any other people or by any single generation since that time. And yet if we are ever to have a world fit to live in -- to say the very least -- the gospel of Jesus must be given a fair trial! Perhaps the time has come, as the world now faces a new era, to put Jesusí gospel into deeds, not words, and thus to let God bring to pass his Reign over the world. The results might astonish even the most ardent believers; and we might begin, say in this very year, not an era but an age -- an age which will endure, if it turns out to be an age of justice and peace, for not merely a thousand years but forever. This cannot be done by human effort alone; but God requires our cooperation if it is to be done at all, for he does not coerce men or compel them to be saved! Nor will the result be the final Kingdom of God, but only its beginning, its outward manifestation, its "dawning point."

It is this hope of the Kingdom, as valid and relevant today as ever, with which the Gospel of Mark confronts our generation. True, that Gospel somewhat obscured the message, by substituting a theological idea -- the person of Christ, conceived as the secret, mysterious "Son of Man" -- for the primary and central element in Jesusí own teaching, with consequences that ran on for five or six centuries in the christological controversies and survive to this day. It represented a major step in what Harnack called "the Hellenizing of the Gospel," and we need to read between its lines, to read back from it to Jesus himself and his life and teaching. Nevertheless, without this idea we might possibly never have had such books as the Gospels, and in consequence the Christian religion might not have continued to bear within itself the means of its own correction, revitalization, and renewal. We must be grateful to Mark for what he did -- rather than blame him for what he failed to do, or for the inadequate performance of what we wish he had undertaken.

At the same time it seems clearer than ever before that only religion, actual faith and practice, genuine obedience and response to the gospel of Godís Reign over the world, will ever save us or the society we live in. Theology will not do it -- clearly, nineteen centuries of theology have not done it, however important and however inevitable theology must ever be. Nothing short of the complete renovation and remotivation of human life will suffice -- only a genuinely ethical faith, only "faith working through love." More attentively than ever before, therefore, we must wait for "fresh light to break forth from the Word of God"; and, having seen, we must act!

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