This blog follows on from my earlier reflections on the beginning of the good news of Jesus, which we know as the gospel according to Mark. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/19/1-where-has-mark-gone/
The stories which were originally told about Jesus were individual stories. Over time, however, some of the story tellers began to make collections of similar or related stories. Instead of just one story of a miracle, a particular story teller might have a repertoire of four or five such stories. Rather than speaking a random assortment of individual wise sayings which seemed to have little relation to one another, another story teller might collect a number of sayings which relate to a common topic, or have certain words or ideas in common. Such collections were undoubtedly made at the oral stage—that is, by those who were well-practised at telling stories in the market place, in a courtyard, at the synagogue or at a gathering in a large house.
So it is quite likely that various collections of stories about Jesus made their way around the scattered groups of Jesus followers, still by word of mouth, before they were eventually written down. It is also quite likely that oral collections were known and used by the writers of the Gospels found within the New Testament. There are various signs of such oral collections of stories in each of the canonical Gospels—not the least in Mark’s Gospel, the shortest of the four Gospels.
Stories in Mark’s Gospel
In the first half of Mark’s Gospel, many stories of healing and exorcism can be found. A careful look at the structure of Mark 1–8 reveals two obvious clusters of miracle stories. Mark 1:21–2:12 is a collection of miraculous deeds performed by Jesus in Galilee, beginning and ending in Capernaum (see 1:21 and 2:1). Mark 4:35–5:43 links a pair of intertwined miracles in Galilee (5:21–43) with another pair of miracles performed across the Sea of Galilee in Gentile territory (4:35–5:20).
Immediately before this second collection of miracles stories, there is almost a full chapter devoted to the parables of Jesus (Mark 4:1–34). Another later chapter contains a collection of sayings which each relate to the coming apocalyptic era, when the kingdom will be ushered in (Mark 13:1–37). Whilst there are both parables and apocalyptic sayings elsewhere in Mark’s Gospel, these particular sections appear to hold together very strongly, suggesting that they came to the author of Mark’s Gospel already in this interrelated form.
Just before this apocalyptic chapter, there is a string of incidents which reveal how Jesus engaged in honour-shame contests; that is, verbal combat with a number of opponents. Mark 11:27–12:41 contains stories which tell how Jesus was able to better his opponents on a number of matters. It is highly likely that this also was an oral collection of ‘conflict stories’ gathered around the theme of conflict between Jesus and the authorities in Jerusalem.
Mark 9:33–50 is yet another section of the Gospel which contains a collection of individual stories that seem to have little in common with one another. Indeed, verses 40–50 are simply short sayings of Jesus linked together rather abruptly. This might be an example of the tendency to gather together many small, isolated sayings of Jesus to form a larger collection which can be told by the story teller.
The narrative of the passion of Jesus
It is highly likely that, alongside these collections, there was another collection of materials made about Jesus, before the Gospels we know were actually written: the story of Jesus’ last days in Jerusalem: his arrest, trials, crucifixion, and burial.
This collection was probably made in the early decades after Jesus had been crucified, so that later followers of Jesus could know what took place years before in the last days of Jesus’ life. It reads as a flowing whole, rather than as a collection of isolated stories thrown together for convenience. It follows Jesus through a series of interrelated events.
This part of the Gospel story (chapters 14–15 in Mark) is known as the passion narrative, as it tells about what Jesus suffered in his final days. (“Passion” comes from the Latin word passio, meaning suffering.)
The writer of Mark’s Gospel seems to have been the first person (as far as we know from the evidence) who drew together a number of expressions about the way of Jesus, and worked them into a single, cohesive whole, in a continuous narrative style. The distinctive contribution of the author of this work is that all of these stories are incorporated into the larger story which Mark tells—the story of how it was that Jesus came to be arrested, tried, crucified and buried.
Mark’s Gospel is structured with two main parts: telling stories about Jesus in Galilee and on his journey to Jerusalem (Mark 1–10) and telling what happened to Jesus in Jerusalem (Mark 11–16). The second part forms the climax to the whole work. Indeed, the author of Mark has shaped his account so that the passion narrative, placed in the concluding section of his work (telling what happened to Jesus in Jerusalem), forms the climax to the whole work.
Likewise, the author of Mark has shaped the first part of his account (telling stories about Jesus in Galilee and on his journey to Jerusalem) so that there are many short, but significant, pointers to the fate that lies in store for Jesus in Jerusalem. So important is the role of the passion narrative as the focal point for the whole work, that the Gospel of Mark has been described as “a passion narrative with an extended introduction”.
It is this pattern—collections of stories about Jesus in Galilee followed by a journey to Jerusalem and the account of the passion of Jesus—which was adopted (but also adapted) by the authors of the the book of origins (the Gospel of Matthew) and the orderly account of the things fulfilled among us (the Gospel of Luke). Along with the belief that Mark was the first Gospel to be written, there is a widespread belief amongst scholars that a version of Mark’s Gospel was actually used as a written source by the authors of these other two Gospels.
These three Gospels are known as the Synoptic Gospels, from the Greek word syn-opsis, meaning “looking together”. They have this name because it is possible to lay them out, side by side, and look at the same time at the same story in all three Gospels. These Gospels (along with John’s Gospel) are also called Passion Gospels, because they all come to a conclusion with the passion of Jesus.
So the author of Mark’s Gospel makes some important contributions to Christian literature—writing the earliest Gospel and influencing the authors of the other early Gospels. He also places his mark on Christian history by shaping the way that the story of Jesus would be remembered throughout Christian history.
Outline of the storyline of The Gospel of Mark
Jesus is baptised by John (1.1–11)
and tested in the desert in Judea. (1.12–13)
He then moves to Galilee, (1.14–15)
where he preaches, teaches, heals and exorcises. (1.16–9.50)
When Jesus returns to Judea, (10.1–52)
he comes to Jerusalem and enters the Temple, (11.1–25)
engages in controversy with the authorities (11.27–12.44)
and instructs his disciples. (13.1–37)
After sharing a last supper with his disciples, (14.1–25)
Jesus is arrested, tried and crucified. (14.26–15.41)
Then he is buried in a tomb (15.42–47)
which is subsequently found empty. (16.1–8)
See further https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/22/3-mark-placing-suffering-and-death-at-the-heart-of-the-gospel/ and https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/23/4-the-structure-of-the-passion-narrative-in-mark/
This material was drawn from MARKING THE GOSPEL: an exploration of the Gospel of Mark, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2014).