LESSON 2: NEW TESTAMENT
PART A: INTRODUCTION TO THE SYNOPTIC GOSPELS
· the presence of eyewitnesses still alive and
the expectation that the Second Coming of Jesus would be soon.But with the persecutions the witnesses were disappearing. Also new ideas and heresies were developing, e.g. the docetic heresy that Jesus Christ was not really human. Christian communities had to be enabled to deal with all this. Therefore it became important that a written Gospel. The Gospel is a new type of literature that emerged in the latter half of the first century AD. Paul’s letters are often confined to specific pieces of advice on living the Christian life. When we read Paul’s letters we are reading someone else’s mail. I don’t mean this here in a derogatory sense, merely that they are not aimed directly at us in the same way that a Gospel is. A Gospel is meant to be a comprehensive treatment of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. A Gospel is not a biography of Jesus although it certainly contains details about Jesus’ life, nor is it a history although it certainly contains historical details. The word ‘Gospel’ means ‘Good News’. Do you treasure the Gospels as Good News in your life?
The Pontifical Biblical Commission (advisory body to the Pope on the Scriptures) issued a document in 1964, entitled Instruction on the Historical Truth of the Gospels. It advises us to pay attention to the three stages in the formation of the Gospels. Please read CCC 126.
1) Jesus’ public ministry, 30-33 AD. Jesus explained the kingdom and chose his disciples to be his witnesses
2) After Pentecost, the apostles proclaimed the death and resurrection of Jesus to others. The Jesus who preached became the Christ who was preached. While preaching and explaining they took into account the needs and circumstances of their listeners, passing on what was said and done by the Lord. This is called the oral tradition.
3) The evangelists committed this primitive instruction to writing in the Gospels which had been passed on orally at first and then in pre-Gospel writings.
Luke admitted when he began writing his Gospel that this was, in fact, how his Gospel grew up. Please read Luke 1:1-4 and compare it with the above. Rewrite Luke 1:1-4 and insert 1, 2 and 3 in the appropriate places indicating the three stages of formation.
Note therefore that we do not have direct quotations from Jesus in the Gospels. What we have is two stages removed from Jesus. What we have in the Gospels is the apostles’ preaching about Jesus which was put in writing by the evangelists. That is not 100% the same as Jesus’ own words. From the many things handed down to them the evangelists selected some things, synthesized others, expanded others to suit the situation of their churches at the time they were writing. For example as you will see in this lesson, Mark writing after the fire of Rome draws attention to a suffering Messiah asking us to carry our cross. Not everything Jesus said and did is in the Gospels because the evangelists had to make selections. An example of a saying of Jesus which is not in any of the Gospels is “It is more blessed to give than to receive” which is recorded in Acts.
Because Matthew, Mark and Luke have many similarities they are called Synoptic Gospels, (‘syn’ in Greek = together/with and ‘optic’ = seeing). Synoptic means “seeing together”.
It is sometimes said that the Gospels are a passion story with an extended introduction.
*The journey to Jerusalem is not clear-cut in Matt and Mark, but is in Luke.
Also note that there is no infancy narrative (Christmas story) in Mark.
To understand the Gospels you need to know something of the geography of Palestine. A pilgrimage to the Holy Land is often said to be the fifth Gospel. Note the main points: Galilee in the north, Jerusalem in the south, the river Jordan draining the Sea of Galilee in the north into the Dead Sea in the south. The only outlet from the dead sea is evaporation which is reason for its saltiness. Please see your map of Palestine in Lesson 1 Part C and become familiar with it. Return to it frequently during the course.
In this lesson you will begin to become familiar with the basic details of Mark’s Gospel so I will give you many references. Please look up as many of them as possible to become familiar with Mark. In particular, read and study 8:22-10:52 which you may read now or when we come to that section of this lesson.
Who is Mark? The Mark in question is thought to have been John Mark mentioned as a companion of Paul (Acts 12:12,25; 13:5-13; 15:37-39; Col 4:10; Philemon 24; 2 Tim 4:11). 1 Peter 5:13 describes him as Peter’s co-worker “my son Mark”. He is thought to be the young man mentioned in Gethsemane in Mark 14:51-52.
There is evidence from the Church of the early centuries that Mark’s main source was Peter and that the Gospel was composed in Rome. Eusebius (263-339 AD) writing in Historia Ecclesiastica (The History of the Church) quoted from Papias, the Bishop of Hieropolis in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) from c 100-130 AD.
“Mark, who had been Peter’s interpreter, wrote down carefully, but not in order, all that he remembered of the Lord’s sayings and doings. For he had not heard the Lord or been one of His followers, but later, as I said, one of Peter’s. Peter used to adapt his teaching to the occasion, without making a systematic arrangement of the Lord’s sayings, so that Mark was quite justified in writing down some things just as he remembered them. For he had one purpose only - to leave out nothing that he had heard, and to make no misstatement about it”.
This does not mean that Peter was Mark’s only source, not everything in the Gospel comes from Peter. But we can certainly say that Peter was the main source Mark used.
The date of the composition of the Gospel is fixed using events in Rome and Jerusalem. Traditionally the date for the writing of the Gospel is said to have been after Peter’s death in Rome in 64 AD and before the Jewish War in 67-70 AD. Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome in 64 AD during the persecutions of the Christians initiated by the Roman emperor Nero after the fire of Rome. Peter was crucified upside down to the left of where St Peter’s Basilica now stands. On the left of the Basilica you see an arch with Swiss guards on duty. The coble-stoned area beyond the arch on the left-hand side is believed to be the place of Peter’s crucifixion. Paul was beheaded outside the city, although it is now well within the city. The history of Jerusalem also helps us to date Mark. Matt, Mark and Luke each have an eschatological chapter, that is, a chapter dealing with eschatology, which includes, among other things, the destruction of Jerusalem. Eschatology concerns the last things, the end of time. In Mark it is chapter 13, in Matt chapter 24 and in Luke it is chapter 21. There is nothing in Mark 13 to suggest that the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, which took place in AD 70, has already occurred. This is predicted by Jesus in Mark 13:2. In Mark it prediction, whereas Matt and Luke, writing after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 could be more detailed. Therefore scholars conclude that the Gospel was written before this date.
Since Mark composed his Gospel in Rome and it would be read by non-Jewish converts to Christianity as well as former Jews, you would expect him to explain matters that Gentile (non-Jewish, we Christians are Gentiles) readers of his Gospel would not be familiar with. See how Mark translates Aramaic words for the benefit of his readers in 5:41; 7:34; 15:34
To understand a Gospel we need to understand something about its structure. Putting it simply, we can divide Mark into two halves. In the first half of the Gospel Jesus is mainly concerned with teaching the crowds. He uses parables and miracles and rejects any notion that he is the Messiah. For example, we see Jesus commanding demons not to reveal who he is (1:34; 3:12), and also people he healed (1:43; 7:36) and raised from the dead (5:43). This is sometimes referred to as the Messianic Secret. In the first half of the Gospel the action is largely in Galilee.
In 8:27-30 Peter confesses Jesus to be the Messiah which proves to be a watershed in the Gospel. From then on Jesus tries to teach his disciples what the true nature of the Messiah is, a suffering Messiah as we will see in 8:22-10:52. They had thought the Messiah would be powerful and would drive out the Romans from Palestine (Palestine was under Roman occupation since 63 BC). From 8:30 onwards the action moves outside of Galilee.
The longer ending (16:9-20) was not written by Mark but added later. This ending is not in several manuscripts. It was added because the original ending (women fleeing in fear in 16:8) was felt to be inadequate. Curiously this longer ending not written by Mark is the Gospel passage that we read on Mark’s feast day on 25 April!
Now we begin to read the Gospel. Jesus called the first four disciples and immediately they left their nets and followed him (1:16-20). Would they leave everything and follow a stranger immediately? Unlikely, if they had sense. Remember the evangelists are presenting facts with their audience in mind. Mark is here trying to impress on the readers the drastic nature of following Jesus. Jesus defended the disciples against the scribes and Pharisees in 2:18,23-24. In 3:13-19 Jesus chose the Twelve and sent them on a mission recorded in 6:6b-13. It meant detachment from family and occupation, and a commitment to preach Jesus’ teachings.
When Jesus taught in parables we expect the disciples to understand but they don’t and Jesus becomes impatient (4:13,40). Notice in 6:34-36 that the crowd was absorbed in Jesus’ teaching but not the disciples. Jesus called his disciples to serve the crowd, “Give them something to eat themselves” (6:37). This meaning of discipleship as service escaped the disciples. When Jesus came to them walking on the sea they were astonished because they did not understand about the loaves, their minds were closed (6:51-52). Although in 4:11-12 Jesus had said to the disciples that the secret of the kingdom of God was given to them, it seems that the more and more they saw they did not perceive, the more and more they heard they did not understand since in 6:51-2 and again in 7:18-19 Jesus was disappointed that the disciples did not understand. The question of the disciples in 8:4 (the crowd was with Jesus for three days and had no food) shows that they learned nothing from the first feeding in 6:30-44. In the scene in the boat following this, the disciples misunderstand Jesus and he asked seven questions reacting to their spiritual blindness (8:17-21). The answer to the questions is ‘No’. The disciples don’t understand the meaning of the multiplication miracles nor who Jesus is.
If you have not already read this section please do so now before continuing. This section of the Gospel is where we see Jesus teaching that being a disciple means service and suffering.
Read the first story and last story of this section, 8:22-10:52. What do you notice? What is the same and what is different in each story?
At Caesarea Philippi Peter proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah. In case the disciples would have the wrong idea about what type of Messiah Jesus was, and falsely think he would expel the Romans from Palestine, he then began to teach them that he must suffer and die (8:31-33). This is the first time that Jesus predicts his passion. We call these statements in the Gospels the ‘Passion Predictions.’ This is not what Peter and the disciples want, and Peter tries to dissuade Jesus, but receives harsh words from Jesus (8:33). Then Jesus teaches that anyone who follows him must take up the cross (8:34). A second time Jesus taught his disciples about his future passion but they did not understand what he said and were afraid to ask him (9:30-32). Instead of understanding they had an argument about which of them was the greatest (9:33-34). Jesus counteracted by saying that if anyone wants to be first he must make himself last of all and servant of all (9:35). Emphasizing his point Jesus put a child in the midst of them and said that anyone who welcomes a child welcomes him (9:37). However it seems that the disciples did not learn anything because shortly afterwards (10:13) they scolded the people who brought children to Jesus for him to touch them. Jesus said that the rewards of discipleship will be accompanied with persecutions (10:30). A third time Jesus predicted his passion, most explicitly of all (10:32-34). What was the disciples’ response to this? James and John asked for seats on his right hand and his left hand. Then the other ten became indignant with James and John (10:41). So once more Jesus teaches them about discipleship; anyone who wants to be great among you must be your servant (10:43-44). We are disappointed with the disciples.In the Christian community those in positions of authority are called to be servants.
As you saw in your exercise above, this section is bracketed or sandwiched by two stories of Jesus restoring sight; 8:22-26 and 10:46-52. Those stories are meant to be symbolic of what Jesus is doing in this section of his ministry and in this section of the Gospel of Mark, i.e. opening eyes to appreciate who he is, the suffering Messiah. In the second healing, the sight is restored totally at once, but in the first (8:22-26) the man’s sight is restored in stages, the only miracle where Jesus doesn’t succeed the first time! That is the way it is for the disciples, they do not appreciate Jesus fully and will need further teaching.
Matthew and Luke also contain passion predictions similar to Mark. Can you find them? Hint. Look for the first ones in Matt 16 and Luke 9.
Now that we have looked at that section of the Gospel, with intensive teaching on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus (8:22-10:52), let’s look for clues elsewhere in the Gospel. When Peter professes that he will never fall away our sympathies lie with him (14:27-30). We are disappointed that the disciples cannot even stay awake in the garden and we are dismayed that the women on hearing the message of the angel fled in fear (16:8).
Those who were called by Jesus to discipleship resisted the idea of Jesus as a suffering Messiah. They also resisted suffering as a necessary part of discipleship and did not take to the idea of ministering to others, or serving. The disappointment we feel with the disciples in Mark is actually the disappointment we feel with ourselves. We want them to be perfect disciples, free from fear and failure, because we want to be fearless and faithful. Do we want the disciples to be presented as perfect because we suffer from perfectionism? It is a challenge to us to see ourselves as fallible followers. Marks’s Gospel questions the images we project onto others in order to protect ourselves from the truth lying beneath. We are also the disciples in question, as well as the frightened women and the Twelve who desert Jesus. Mark’s story continues in our own lives. The Gospel speaks to those who have experienced failure and need to begin anew. Mark presents Jesus more humanly than the other Gospels but also presents people more humanly. Using Peter as his source he obviously gained insights into the humanity of the disciples. Peter’s denial is given much more attention in Mark than in Luke. It receives about equal attention in Matthew. Again the reason is probably the same, Mark obtained many details from Peter.
Mark has an image for discipleship. He calls it being “on the way” e.g. in 8:27. Discipleship is not just making one momentous decision but is being “on the way”. The call of the first four disciples was not a once for all conversion, but was the first step in a long and often faltering journey. Understanding discipleship as being “on the way” gives us the possibility to restart.
We are disappointed by those called by Jesus to be his disciples while there are others not called who are portrayed as having the qualities necessary for discipleship. The stories of Peter’s mother-in-law and Simon of Cyrene portray ideals of service and suffering, ministry and cross. The widow who sacrificed her only two coins (12:41-44) is a marvellous expression of complete trust in God. She could have kept one and given one in the temple. Like her we need to trust in God. The Roman soldier at the cross is the first human being to recognize Jesus as the Son of God (15:39).
Suffering was not just accidental in Jesus’ life; it was a divine necessity, a part of his calling. The Greek word dei is used by Mark in 8:31 when Jesus predicts his passion. That Greek word signifies that it was part of God’s plan. The three passion predictions tell this with greater intensity and more detail each time. Even though Mark does not say as explicitly as Paul that this suffering is for the forgiveness of our sins, this is understood. The Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for many (10:45) and Jesus describes his death as the blood of the covenant poured out for many (14:24).
Mark is concerned to show how Jesus showed his followers that the path of discipleship is also the path of suffering. In the explanation of the Parable of the Sower (4:13-20), Jesus warned of a trial or persecution that would test the Christian (4:17). The Parable of the Sower itself occurs in 4:1-9. The death of John the Baptist (6:14-29), although not a follower of Jesus but a witness, is another example of suffering for the Christian. After Peter’s confession of faith in Jesus (8:27-30) and Jesus’ explanation of his future suffering (8:31-33), Jesus explained that if anyone wanted to be a follower of his he must renounce himself and take up his cross (8:34). Those who will leave to follow Jesus will receive a hundredfold but with persecutions (10:30). James and John will drink the cup that Jesus will drink (10:39) if they are to be his followers. It is in 13:9-13 that there is the clearest teaching on the inevitability of Christian persecution, suffering and even death. The reason given is that it is for Jesus’ name. The two stories of storms at sea (4:35-41; 6:45-52) are best understood as the way in which Jesus rescues the Christian community of Mark’s time in its persecution (remember the persecutions in Rome after the fire in 64 AD). To follow Jesus means to tread the way that he trod, because that is the whole meaning of following. Mark’s purpose was to build up his readers so that they could sustain a period of persecution. Persecution was endemic in the early church. Mark wrote for Christians, like us, who did not like suffering.
Why do I spend some times here on the titles applied to Jesus in Mark? The reason is because they tell us something about Jesus. Mark was answering the question, “Who is Jesus?” through the titles he applied to Jesus. You will see the same titles used also in the other Gospels but time does not allow me to comment on these titles again when we will read Luke and Matthew. However, understanding the titles applied to Jesus in Mark, will help you understand the use of the titles in Luke and Matthew also.
The Gospel opens in 1:1 by stating that it is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Christ/Messiah means anointed. ‘Christ’ is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word ‘Messiah’. It means that Jesus is God’s Anointed One. Peter in Acts 10:38 says Jesus was anointed by the Holy Spirit. This took place at his baptism in the Jordan when the dove descended on him. During the first half the Gospel Jesus conceals his messianic identity as God’s anointed. I have already referred to this above as the messianic secret. In 8:28 Peter affirms that Jesus is the Messiah but then Jesus has to teach them that he will be a suffering Messiah. During his trial before the Sanhedrin, the high priest asked Jesus, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?” Jesus answered, “I am”. It is important to note that it is during his passion that Jesus admits that he is the Christ/Messiah. It shows that his identity as Messiah can only be understood in the light of his passion and death.
Jesus is also introduced in 1:1 as the Son of God. This is confirmed in 1:11 by the voice from heaven during Jesus’ baptism. The demons address Jesus as Son of God, e.g. in 3:11 and 5:7. We see the messianic secret coming into play again in 1:34 and 3:12 when Jesus would not allow the demons to make his identity known. When the demons address Jesus as Son of God during exorcism it shows Jesus’ authority as Son of God. In 9:7 once again a voice from heaven affirms during the Transfiguration that Jesus is the Son of God. In 14:61 during the Sanhedrin trial, Jesus was asked if he was the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One, and he answered affirmatively. While on the cross Jesus was mocked as Messiah/Christ and king of Israel by the Jewish religious authorities in 15:32 but a Roman centurion correctly declared, “In truth this man was the Son of God” (15:39). The readers of Mark knew from the statement in 1:1 that Jesus was the Son of God but by the end of the Gospel many of those who knew Jesus, excluding the Jewish authorities, knew that he was the Son of God. This may have some connection with a plot structure used in some ancient drama whereby the audience knew the truth sfrom the beginning but the characters in the drama gradually came to learn the truth as the drama evolved. Also note that both titles, Christ and Son of God, come together while Jesus is on the cross, 15:32 and 15:39. Mark is saying that we cannot understand Jesus as Messiah/Christ or Son of God apart from his suffering on the cross. It is intrinsic to Jesus as Christ and Son of God.
The title ‘king’ appears 12 times in Mark, revolving around 2 distinct scenes, King Herod in 6:14-29 and Jesus in 15:1-20 during his trial. Read both of these passages now. List the differences between King Herod and Jesus. You can use this as a meditation on the feast of Christ the King.
A king has power. Herod has power, prestige and luxury. But he is also plagued by weakness, superstitious fears, vanity and treachery. Ultimately Herod is not powerful, but is treacherous, weak, boastful and easily seduced. Power can dull our judgment. Jesus also has power, but a different type of power. Jesus has power over nature; multiplication of loaves and fish, calming the storm, expelling demons, power over sickness. In contrast to Herod, Jesus did not exercise power over people. His enemies plotted freely against him. We need to compare any power we have with the Word of God and allow ourselves to be converted if necessary. The kingdom of God arrives in Jesus, in his words and deeds. It challenges and threatens all earthly kingdoms.
Kings receive people of distinction at court. On his birthday Herod had a banquet with courtiers, officers and leading men of Galilee (6:21). Jesus receives the powerless, sick, suffering, and sorrowing. They offer no gift to Jesus and Jesus gives them gifts by making them whole again. Jesus ate with those shunned by society, with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus associated with the unclean, and with children who were looked down on by society at that time.
Wealth and riches measure earthly kingdoms, but these assets could become a liability in entering the kingdom of God. Earthly kingdoms are judged by their size. Jesus’ kingdom has a small beginning like a mustard seed but will grow large (4:30-32). Earthly kingdoms like to demonstrate strength in numbers and power but God’s kingdom is a hidden kingdom, a reality which is already with us and yet is still coming, longing for its completion, visible only to those to whom its mystery has been entrusted.
Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey in Mark 11. (Kings entered cities at least on horseback and preferably on chariot. On the importance of horses see 1 Kings 5:6). Jesus is a humble king. He enters not to rule, but to suffer and die. Jesus has the appearances of kingship in Mark 15:17-19; a purple cloak (purple is a royal color), a crown, a sceptre (Jesus was struck with a reed as a mock sceptre in 15:19), people kneeling before him in homage. But Jesus was never lord over all; instead he was servant to all.
This is the only title that Jesus uses to describe himself in Mark. To understand what Jesus meant by using this title of himself it is essential to know what those who heard Jesus would automatically assume when they heard Jesus describe himself as the Son of Man. While some would say it meant different things it seems to me that above all it means the following. Please read now Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14. Note the description of the Son of Man in Dan 7:13-14. It is a description of a glorious Messiah. So this title, like Christ and Messiah, is also a title to refer to the expected Messiah. So when Jesus uses this title he is admitting that he is the expected Messiah. But notice when Jesus uses this title. He uses this title in the three passion predictions. Read them once again in the teaching section, 8:22-10:52. Once again we see Jesus teaching that the expected Messiah would be a suffering Messiah, not the type of Messiah they had expected.
‘Son of David’ was the chief messianic title in use to describe the expected Messiah at the time of Jesus. This is because they knew the Messiah would be a descendant of King David. The prophet Nathan had made this promise to David in 2 Sam 7:4-17. Read that passage now. When Jesus entered Jerusalem there was a suggestion that he was that Son of David in 11:10. ‘Son of David’ was used at the time of Jesus to describe an earthly messiah, a king or great ruler who would free Palestine from Roman occupation. Once again, therefore, Jesus had to teach the true meaning of the Son of David which he did in a difficult passage in 12:35-37. In this enigmatic passage Jesus is saying that the Son of David is Lord of David due to his resurrection and will sit at the right hand of the Father in heaven. (The Lord, i.e. the Father, said to my Lord, i.e. the Son of David, Jesus, to take his seat at his right hand and the enemies of the Son of David will be as a stool for under his feet through his resurrection). Do you think the scribes and the people could have understood what Jesus meant when he spoke this? No way. This would have become clear only after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. That is why it is explained only in Acts 2:34. It could not have been explained before Jesus took his seat at the right hand of his Father in heaven!
Margaret Nutting Ralph Discovering the Gospels: Four Accounts of the Good News pages 7-57
RA Cole Mark (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries)
The article in the NJBC on Mark.
Before you pray read Mark 5:21-43. Use these miracles to pray for healing of wounds and hurts you experienced going through life. I would like to recall for you the motto chosen by the Catholic Church for the Jubilee 2000, “Jesus Christ, the same, yesterday, today and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8) No matter when you were hurt, remembering that Jesus is the same always, that our yesterday is today for him, our yesterday is now for him, ask him to walk back in time with you to the day when you suffered that particular hurt or received the news of your illness. Use this every day until you experience healing through it. Jesus wants to heal you now as he healed the sick woman and raised the dead girl. Close your eyes and relax. Keep both feet on the ground. Become aware of the presence of God with you. If it helps, light a candle or look at a sacred picture.
Imagine Jesus by your side or in
front of you…Make your way through the crowd to Jesus like the bleeding woman…When
you pray like this at home you can cry to Jesus if you need to and let him wipe
your tears. I have read that tears
contain a depressant in our body concentrated 40 times more than normal so
crying is good way to release depressants….In your imagination touch Jesus’
cloak wishing for his healing…Feel the love of Jesus healing you….Hear Jesus
say to you, “Your faith has restored you to health…”….Or in your
imagination see Jesus take you by the hand as he took Jairus’ daughter by hand
and let Jesus help you up, “I tell you to get up”….Jesus said about the
girl, “She is not dead, only asleep.” (5:39) Hear Jesus say to you, “Your
wound is not permanent, it is only temporary, I am healing you”…Let Jesus
comfort you after the hurt you received….Let the love of Jesus replace all the
damage and hurt and woundedness….Just as the Good Samaritan poured oil and
wine on the wounds of the injured man on the road to Jericho, let Jesus pour his
love on your wounds and replace your wounds with his love…Touch Jesus’
garments and let your bleeding, your suffering, dry up…Hear Jesus say to you,
“You are not dead, only asleep. Get
up”….Tell Jesus about your pain and hurt….In your imagination see Jesus
putting his hand on your head and feel the healing and love of Jesus flow
through you from your head down to your feet…Feel the love of Jesus replacing
your wounds with his love and healing you and making you whole again. Finally thank Jesus for helping and