THE EARLY CHRISTIAN CHURCH - VOLUME 1 : by Philip Carrington, Archbishop of Quebec. Published by the syndics of the Cambridge University Press, 1957. Katapi edition by Paul Ingram, 2013.


| HOME | |< | << | On historical evidence | Reorganization of the Roman church | The Epistle of Peter | The Marcan Gospel | Oral and literary methods | The earliest documents | The making of a book | The tradition of Peter | Jesus and the scribes | Other sources of Mark | The Passion narrative | Parables and hard sayings | The Son of Man | >> |


The stupendous spiritual missile of the gospel, which had been prepared and launched in Galilee in the years 27-30, had completed its trajectory and had exploded in Rome in the years 64-67. As Roman citizens walked about the blackened ruins of their city, they talked of a new people who were called Christians. The church, meanwhile, was reconstructing its corporate life and laying the foundations of its future strength.

Herculaneum: Chapel
15. The 'cross' at Herculaneum ( -/= A.D.79.)

It would be easier for us, no doubt, if numbers of contemporary records and biographies had been preserved, but we must do without these guides. Minute traces of evidence are often sufficient to establish great events; and the importance of events bears no proportion to the amount of evidence which happens to survive about them. The footprint of a dinosaur preserved in a rock in one's garden is not a big thing, but it is a sign that a big animal once passed that way. The absence of dinosaurs' footprints in neighbouring gardens does nothing to invalidate this conclusion; the significant thing is that a footprint has survived. This is a principle which is equally true in the consideration of early Christian history; there is no mystery about the meagreness of the evidence; the marvel is that so much has survived.

Two pieces of evidence of the dinosaur's footprint variety have recently come to light. One is a Christian sepulchre not far from Jerusalem, the date of which is necessarily prior to A.D. 70, when the city was destroyed and the country depopulated. The stone coffers which contain the bones are marked with the sign of the cross and the name of Jesus; in one case in Greek letters. The other is a chapel at Herculaneum, the date of which is necessarily prior to A.D. 79, when the city was |206 covered with lava from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Above the little altar or prie-dieu is a stone slab with an incised cross. So soon, therefore, as the obnoxious word Christian becomes known in the Roman world, the sign of the cross appears as its emblem both in Palestine and in Italy. So old are the intimate Christian traditions.


The reorganization after a savage persecution was naturally a difficult matter, calling for faith, firmness, and sympathy. There were always, at one end of the scale, the 'confessors' (to use a later technical term), who had stood firm and not denied the Name, and at the other those who had stumbled and fallen, the 'apostates' as they soon came to be called. Many of these would ask for restoration. The numerous problems would be intensified in this instance by the loss of the two masters and leaders, the two 'great pillars', Peter and Paul. As the survivors looked backward and forward, they would realize that they were passing into a new era.

Our documentary evidence shows us that the Roman church was not without leadership of apostolic quality. Silas, we may suppose, had gone off to Pontus with the Epistle of Peter; but Mark and Luke were available. Mark was a great man now. His first experience had been gained in the early days in Jerusalem, where his mother's house had been a centre of prayer for the brethren. He had personally attended upon his cousin Barnabas and upon Paul and Peter in their missionary work. He had been designated by the latter as his 'son' or successor in the faith. In his Gospel he ranks himself as a man of the younger generation; for he identifies the actors in the Passion narrative by the names of their children; the father of Alexander and Rufus, he says, or the mother of James and Joses. (There was a man named Rufus living in Rome whose mother was known to Paul; he had been very much at home in her house.)

Luke had been the close friend and medical adviser of Paul. He was the custodian of important documents, some of which were journals or reports of his own composition. It is likely that he had already begun work on his important history of Christian origins: the Acts may have existed in something very like its present form. Mark had oral traditions and written documents which came to him from Peter and others; |207 when these received their completed literary form, Luke was obliged to re-model his own work, and could then produce his full-length Gospel.

Timothy had been designated by Paul as his son or successor in the ministry of the gospel.

No doubt the principal activities of Luke and Timothy were in Greece and Asia Minor; but we must not forget that the intercourse which had been established between Rome and Asia by Paul himself continued to be an important factor in church history for a hundred and fifty years. We should think in terms of a curve of continuous interaction which passes through Corinth from Ephesus to Rome and back again.

To these names we must add that of Linus, who was mentioned in Paul's last communication with Timothy, and appears in the Roman tradition as the first bishop of Rome. The second name on the list of Roman bishops is that of Cletus or Anencletus, of whom nothing is known. The third is Clement, who was the leader of the church thirty years later, and wrote an Epistle to the Corinthians which we have already used. Apart from this by no means negligible information, our sense of history would tell us that excellent leadership was available in the Roman church, since in point of fact it was successfully reorganized on rather conservative lines which were based on the Judaeo-Christian liturgical order, the apostolic gospel-preaching, and the apostolic epistles.


The Epistle of Peter was a precious legacy, or, if we decide to follow the lead of more sceptical critics, an important production, of the Roman church in this period. It falls into three sections. The first is Paschal in character, and seems to presuppose a baptismal occasion at the Passover season; Christ is described as the lamb without blemish who was slain before the foundation of the world, and the sprinkling of the blood is given a mystical application to the sanctification of the converts. The Gentile Christians are addressed as a diaspora, an Israel of God dispersed among the nations; they are strangers and sojourners in the modern Babylon. The language which Peter uses is taken from Exodus texts which were in order at the Passover. He calls them a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God's own |208 possession, the very titles which the old Israel had received from God on Mount Sinai. They appear again in a liturgical context in the Revelation of St John as a doxology.

Unto him that loved us,
And loosed us from our sins by his own blood;
And made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father:
To him be glory and might unto the ages of the ages.
(Exodus xix. 5-6; 1 Peter ii. 5; Revelation i. 5-6 and v. 10.)

This is a Gentile Israel, redeemed from the earth, praising and glorifying God. It gives us a glimpse of the oldest Christian liturgy, which appears again in a more fixed form in Clement; but in 1 Peter and in the Revelation its Israelite character and inheritance are still dominant; contact with the Jewish antecedents has not been lost; it is Jewish liturgy transformed. In 1 Peter the worshipping church is described as a spiritual temple in which spiritual sacrifices are offered.

The peculiar destiny of the new Israel was to suffer. The word is repeated twelve times in 1 Peter, and is balanced by twelve repetitions of the word 'glory'.

The second part of the Epistle is catechetical, and follows naturally from the sacramental thinking of the first part. It is similar in substance and outline to the catechetical material in certain other New Testament Epistles; but each author develops it freely in accordance with his own special tradition. The key-note of the Petrine form is the compound word 'doing-good', which Clement so often echoes.

After some advice on the honour and submission due to the emperor, Peter introduces the topic of domestic and social relations, the 'code of submission' as Clement calls it; but this old Jewish material has been more successfully christianized than in Paul. He considers the case of the Christian wife who is married to a pagan husband, and the Christian slave who belongs to a pagan master and has to suffer violence unjustly, in silence, as Christ himself had done in his Passion; a passage which calls to mind the silence of Christ in Mark's story of the Passion, and the conception of the Messiah who came to be a servant. It is expressed in the time-honoured language of the Song of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah.

The third part has the fiery ordeal of persecution in view, and here the author writes, as an elder and a witness of the sufferings of the |209 Messiah, to men of another race, who love him though they have never seen him. There is an emphasis here which is found in Mark, but is not characteristic of Paul; it is the adoption of the life and passion of Christ as a pattern to be imitated. He turns to his 'fellow-elders' in the church, and exhorts them to shepherd their flock; and when the chief shepherd shall appear, they will receive the crown of glory that passeth not away.

The Epistle is often compared, to its disadvantage, with the writings of Paul. It has none of his mystic dreams, or intellectual flights, or spiritual exaltations, or apocalyptic visions. Its message is to be sober and vigilant and watch unto prayer. Its beauty is always restrained. Its fundamentally Hebrew mode of thought is not in the least disguised by the formal excellence of the Greek it is written in. It is the work of a pastor. Its appeal is simply that of the firm, tender-hearted, rather sad personality of the man who speaks through it so earnestly and simply; with nothing original to say.


The traditional view that the Gospel of St Mark is Petrine and Roman has been found to harmonize with the literary evidence and the historical indications. Its use by the other three evangelists proves that it was early written, widely distributed, and everywhere received as authoritative; but not as scripture, of course, for that time had not come. The other evangelists do not hesitate to recast its rather unliterary Greek, and to omit or transpose some of the short sections of which it is mainly composed. It would appear that its order was not approved of by some of the brethren in Asia Minor, who must have had some other form of the gospel, which they preferred.

The disciple John, who flourished in Ephesus not long after it was written, came to its defence. He made a judgement upon it which was preserved by his pupil Papias. « See chapter 17, p. 317. Mark was the interpreter of Peter, he said; but Peter had never made any systematic arrangement of the gospel material; he composed his teachings as the need arose; and Mark had written them down accurately, though not in order. Not that he had made any errors; he had taken care to avoid errors or omissions. Now this John was a disciple of Jesus and a master in the Ephesian school; and such a statement, made by such a man, may be |210 taken to be authoritative. His guarantee of the accuracy of Mark implies that he was familiar himself with the tradition of Peter; and his picture of Mark interpreting for Peter confirms and amplifies the picture of Mark in Peter's Epistle as his 'son'.

Nevertheless it is possible that the opinion which he gave may have acquired a rather too precise form in the minds of his hearers; and perhaps we are not bound to restrict ourselves too closely to the words in which Papias reported it. A careful study of the text suggests that Mark was more than a translator and a scribe; he may have had access to other material; he may have had predecessors in the art of Gospel-writing; he may have spent some years in literary experimentation; but whatever may be thought of these possibilities, the fact remains that his Gospel, as a whole, has a Petrine quality, which supports the evidence which it preserves. Papias does not record that it was written in Rome, so far as our meagre knowledge of his writings takes us, but the connexion seems well enough vouched for.


The oral form of the oldest apostolic tradition is vouched for in this quotation from the lips of John, and it is fully recognized by modern scholars. It is implied in the title Rabbi, which was freely used in addressing Jesus. The rabbis taught their pupils to memorize, and, so far as their own teaching about the Law was concerned, they did not tolerate writing. One of their favourite maxims was to commit nothing to writing. Now oral teaching naturally assumes a set form for easier memorization; and these oral documents, as we may call them, became the stock in trade of the pupils when they set up as masters or teachers. This method of transmission explains the fixity of form which the gospel traditions assumed, and at the same time the variability in the telling. The method was necessarily conservative, one memory checking another at each repetition of the material. There was nothing vague or haphazard about it; it was the normal method of transmitting knowledge from one generation to another. The teaching of the first-century rabbis continued to be handed down in this way, through a succession of disciples, until it was written down in the Mishnah about the end of the second century.

It is fortunate that the oral tradition of the disciples of Jesus was |211 reduced to writing while it was still fresh in their minds. This development was due to the fact that it had passed into the Greek world, where literary methods were the natural ones. There may have been Aramaic transcripts, but if there were, they led to no literary tradition in that language. Papias made a statement about an Aramaic transcript which was composed by Matthew.


The only early gospel document, apart from Mark, about which we can feel any certainty is the document called 'Q', portions of which can be reconstructed by a comparison of Matthew and Luke when both writers make use of it; but the resultant reconstruction is far from satisfying.

It consisted of fairly short paragraphs which contained sayings of Jesus, dialogue, and even anecdote. Its order can be determined in part. It opened, as Mark does, with the preaching of John the Baptist, of which it gives a much fuller account. It went on from the baptism of Jesus to the three temptations, for which it is our only authority. It appears to have contained a short version of the Sermon on the Mount, which was followed by the healing of the centurion's servant or son. It included some account of the calling of the Twelve, and possibly a list of their names, and certainly the various instructions or exhortations which were addressed to them from time to time, including the mystical passage about the revelation of the Father in the Son, and the exaltation of the faculty of spiritual vision, and the counsels not to harbour fear or doubt, but to trust wholly in the Father. The gracious style of this author was well adapted to convey the poetic power of these passages. He retains their Old Testament colour. The Queen of Sheba appears before Solomon; Jonah confronts the Ninevites; the Gentiles are to sit down with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom: all of them pro-Gentile passages. It is rich in controversy with Scribes and Pharisees; and denunciations of an unspiritual generation, worse than Sodom and Gomorrha, which failed to appreciate either the Baptist or the Son of Man; and apocalyptic pictures of a day on which he would come again in glory. Its scene is laid in Galilee, though it ends in Jerusalem, or with Jerusalem in sight; Jerusalem that killed the prophets and stoned those who were sent to her.

|212 It is thought to have been older than Mark, possibly a production of the fifties; and so was the Passion narrative in one form or another; and possibly other sequences of teaching or narrative. It has been suggested that Mark drew upon Q, but this is quite unlikely. It would appear that the form of the tradition which he followed sometimes included independent versions of the same events or forms of teaching. The recent school of criticism known as 'Form Criticism' believes that short units of oral teaching or narrative were current in the churches in more than one form; that they were combined into sequences for the use of teachers; and that these sequences were the sources from which the more ambitious literary efforts were constructed. A somewhat restricted theory.


It is desirable now to have some knowledge about book-production in the Roman world. Books were made of a material called papyrus, in the form of a roll. The most convenient width seems to have been about ten inches, the length running to as much as forty feet. Matthew, Luke, John, and Acts would all conform to this average or optimum size; and these are the longest books in the New Testament. In composing a book, the author would have to take into account the amount of footage at his disposal, and plan accordingly. The Gospel of Mark would not work out at more than about twenty feet, allowing the writing to take up the same amount of room as it does on the Vatican Codex.

The Greek word for such a roll was 'biblos' or 'biblion', and our word Bible (Biblia Sacra) is simply a continuation of the use of this word. The corresponding Latin word was 'volumen', a rolling or volume.

So far as we know the modern book-form was not yet in use; but within a hundred years the book-producers in Egypt began to fold sheets of parchment in quires, and sew them together along the folds, so producing the' codex' or book-form that we know. It was a cheaper method, since both sides of the material could be used for writing. Christians were quick to adopt it, and the oldest surviving Gospel manuscripts, or fragments of Gospel manuscripts, are of this type. Nevertheless, it is still thought that the originals appeared in the form of rolls, and this type of Gospel was used at Rome as late as the end of the second century.

Isaiah scroll

|213 The roll was not so inconvenient to use as is sometimes suggested. It was held transversely in both hands, one end in one and one in the other; not up and down as is sometimes supposed. It was rolled up on a wooden roller which was not attached to the papyrus, a second roller being used to take up the part which had been read. The text began at the left-hand end of the roll, and was written in narrow vertical columns, so that a small amount could be exposed for reading at any point. If one wished to refer from one part of the book to another, all that was necessary was to lay it on a table, where a large amount of it could be rapidly unrolled at once. Three or four feet of ten-inch papyrus would reveal one-sixth of Mark, allowing the writing to be on the same scale as in the Vatican Codex. Figures in the margin made reference to chapters or paragraphs perfectly simple. First lines of chapters were sometimes written in red ink. The general plan of a book could be made out more rapidly and more easily than in a codex or modern book.

Ancient writing materials
Reed pens & pen case from Roman Egypt.
(British Museum)

The text was written with a reed pen. Capital letters, called 'uncials', were used in formal texts, but running hands, called 'cursives', were also in use. In the case of uncials, there was no division between the words, and a word might break at the end of a line. This continuous succession of letters made the art of reading, and copying, rather more difficult. It would be better to have a lector, or reader-aloud, who knew his text; and there is a definite reference to this minister in Mark's Gospel, who was expected apparently to explain hard passages. Most books in the ancient world were planned to be read aloud to reading circles, and the Gospels are no exception; they were planned to be effective when operated as part of the church procedure.


We know from Paul's Epistles that there were different parties or traditions in the Roman church or churches, some of which may never have coalesced into the resultant Roman church. There had been arguments about the lawfulness of certain foods and the observance of certain days. Jewish Christians had strongly opposed Paul himself during his first imprisonment. The great achievement of the thirty years which followed the martyrdoms was the fusion of the traditions of Peter and Paul, within the liberal Judaeo-Christian tradition, into a |214 unified church which commanded the respect of the Christian world. Clement's Epistle is the literary monument of this achievement. Mark, who had been closely connected with both apostles, was admirably fitted to play a leading part in this development; and it is clear that he did so, not only for the Roman church, but through the Roman church for the church at large.

It is possible, by careful literary criticism of his Gospel, to make reliable inferences about the state of the church which it was designed to serve. The material of which it is composed, and even the phraseology in which it is expressed, must have come, of course, from the apostolic tradition; but the principles of selection, arrangement, and emphasis must often have been decided in view of local needs; and a certain amount of editing would be required; many sentences and paragraphs must have been written freely by the author.

The word 'gospel' did not at that time mean a book. It meant the apostolic message and mission, particularly among the Gentiles. Mark does not hesitate to use it, in his prologue, for the preaching of the Kingdom of God by Jesus in Galilee; implying that the message about Jesus which had been preached to the nations was continuous and identical with that original proclamation. Their baptism was the same baptism; the Spirit which they received was the same Spirit. The space allotted to the preaching of the Baptist is curtailed in order to give prominence to the baptism of Jesus, and the descent of the Spirit upon him; which precede the preaching in Galilee.

How, then, did a written book come to be called a gospel? Possibly because this one began with the words: 'Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.' Hebrew books were commonly called by their first words, and since the word 'beginning' had already been appropriated for the Book of Genesis, this one would be called 'The Gospel'; and when it had to compete with other similar books, it would be called The Gospel 'according to Mark'. But we do not know when this occurred.

The use of the word is no accident, however. The primary purpose of the book was evangelism. The figure of Jesus of Nazareth is cast on the screen in motion and in colour. He lives again as he lived in Galilee and Jerusalem, among the crowds and with his disciples. He calls, he heals, he forgives, he blesses; and as he does so, the power that was operative to heal and bless and forgive in Galilee becomes operative in |215 Rome. It is the person of Jesus, rather than his teaching, that is presented throughout.

This tradition of evangelism is not merely Galilean; it is Petrine. The 'mystery of the kingdom', it says, was entrusted to twelve disciples, whose call, training, and authorization form one of the leading themes of the book; the right tradition would therefore be that of the Twelve. But there was a special group of three (or four) disciples within the Twelve, whose position was closer to Jesus than the rest; and therefore it would be inferred that their tradition would be better still. Best of all would be the tradition of Peter, who was their spokesman.

Those who were outside the circle of the Twelve and their company did not properly understand; 'everything came to them in riddles (or parables)'; and among those who 'stood outside' was the family of Jesus. The suggestion would undoubtedly have been that their tradition was inferior to that of Peter and the Twelve. Roman Christians could not help noting these points; they might remember them if Jewish Christians who insisted on some particular provision of the Law of Moses chanced to invoke the authority of James. The etrine tradition would thus come to the help of the Pauline.

Mark produced his written roll by piecing together various short stories or units of teaching, or sequences of such units which had already taken form in the apostolic tradition. Each unit could stand alone as a Sunday lesson, and quite probably did. They were written in a rough uncultured Greek with a strong Jewish flavour, occasionally retaining such Aramaic words as epphathah or talitha cumi or gehenna. We notice a number of touches which are marks of personal recollection or colloquial anecdote. He thus retained in his literary work something of the impression which was created when the old fisherman told his stories over the bread and wine. It is not the language of the Hellenistic schools, but it is surprisingly vivid and effective, especially when it is read aloud by one who knows how. It is awkwardly expressed now and then, but it is good, robust, well-knit prose. It is all sinew and bone and muscle; it has no superfluous fat. And it is remarkable how much material it comprises in its twenty feet.

It cannot be called an artless composition. Its repetitions and recurrences form an artistic pattern. Its short units are grouped into sequences, and advance from climax to climax. The Passion narrative is in view from the start, and everything moves towards it.


The second Galilean sequence opens with the call of a fifth disciple, Levi the publican, elsewhere identified with Matthew; and its theme is the conflict between Jesus and the scribes who expounded and administered the Law. As the volume unrolls further, it becomes clear that the 'house' or school of Jesus was built up in opposition to the official Rabbinic schools, which were also called 'houses'. Jesus eats and drinks with sinners in the house of Levi, even on a fast day which the Pharisees are observing. The new teaching supersedes the scribal legalism on many points; even the Sabbath has to give way before the gospel. The Son of Man has power to forgive sins; the Son of Man is master of the Sabbath. Later on in the book there is a strong scene in which he opposes the oral tradition of the Pharisees and makes a formal pronouncement on the subject of clean and unclean, virtually abolishing the distinction. It was a subject of keen controversy in the apostolic church, wherever Jew met Greek; and so no doubt were the other subjects touched on in this series.

Jesus brings in a new spiritual authority. The old legalism cannot come to terms with him, for the great spiritualities override the small technicalities, and the needs of humanity can be more important than the demands of the ceremonial system. The supreme commandments, however, still occupy their fundamental position, especially those which proclaim the unity of the God of Israel and enjoin the love of God and the love of one's neighbour. This pronouncement won the approbation of an unnamed Pharisee scribe, thus confirming the evidence of the Acts that there were Pharisees who were not unfriendly. (It is not intended to suggest that the Rabbinic authority, as it developed in Judaism, did not temper the ceremonial law in view of human needs. It did. Human life came first.)

These passages support the picture of Peter in the Acts and in Galatians as the chief apostle of Jewish Christianity, and, in spite of that, the exponent of a liberal policy towards the Gentiles. Roman Christians would learn that a liberal form of Jewish Christianity was legitimately descended from the teaching and example of Jesus himself.


The question has been asked whether Mark had other material to draw upon in addition to the tradition of Peter. Our common sense tells us that he must have, for we are still in the period when the facts about Jesus were common knowledge, and there were many disciples and eyewitnesses still available; and Mark himself had been immersed in this stream of talk and testimony from his youth. The detection of it in his narrative is a somewhat speculative enterprise, however.

It is considered likely by many scholars that the stories of the feeding of the five thousand and the feeding of the four thousand are only different versions of the same event; and if this is so, one of them, probably the four thousand, may reasonably be considered to be derived from a non-Petrine tradition; and if this is so, there may be other connected material of a non-Petrine character. It is also possible to detect in the Gospel, as it stands, certain sequences of teaching which look as if they had attained written form before they were included in it. The most convincing cases are the collection of parables in the fourth chapter and the' Little Apocalypse' in the thirteenth; but it does not follow that these collections of teaching had not been put together in the school of Peter.

On the other hand, the evangelist did not use all the material which was known to him. Jesus is constantly represented as teaching; but not much of this teaching is actually given. The 'Sermon on the Mount' and the 'Our Father' are neither of them included. Such material must have been handled in the Roman ecclesia and in the school of Peter; but it did not serve the purposes for which this volume was designed. It probably continued to be handled on a purely oral basis.

The Gospel begins and ends abruptly. There are no stories of the birth, childhood, or early manhood of Jesus; and no Resurrection stories, though the fact of the Resurrection is declared beforehand and the tomb is found empty on the Sunday morning after the Passover. There has been much discussion about this sudden ending; the women depart from the tomb trembling and beside themselves; fear makes them speechless.

Some scholars have suggested that the end of the book has been lost by some mishap, but this view is not very easy to accept, since it reached Matthew and Luke in this form. After all, we do not know what happened when the lector came to the end of the roll. There may |218 have been a benediction like the opening words of 1 Peter: 'Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has begotten us again to a living hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead'; or psalms and hymns and spiritual songs; or the breaking of the bread.


The fact is that everything in the book is subordinated to the story of the crucifixion, and leads up to it. This narrative is a well organized literary whole, and had probably existed in written form for some time. It shows the marks of liturgical usage. It was built to fit into the twenty-four hours of the Jewish day, beginning at sunset with the Passover meal, and lasting till the sunset of the following day, when the Lord's body was laid in the tomb. Everything leads up to the cross: the conflict with the scribes, the choice and training of the Twelve, Peter's act of faith in Jesus, the great wonder of the transfiguration, and the three Passion predictions with their pendent sequences of teaching. The figure of Peter comes into prominence as he makes his act of faith in Jesus as the Messiah, and the story of the Passion makes much of his act of denial.

Interwoven with this progression of thought is the theme of martyrdom, of following Jesus and confessing Jesus, which had become a dire reality for Roman Christians in the Neronian persecution. Peter appears throughout as the man who had faith but failed to understand and failed to witness. There is no attempt whatever to glorify him; and in this sad picture we are bound to recognize the self-witness of the great apostle. No one else would have pictured him so. The humiliation of Peter in the Marcan Gospel is of one piece with the grave restraint of his own Epistle; the emphasis in both is on suffering here and glory hereafter. But, for the first hearers, this sombre self-portrait had been transfigured by the glory of his recent martyrdom, and the example of his earlier years may have been used to justify and inspire a sympathetic attitude towards brethren who had failed to take up the cross in Rome.

The pattern of martyrdom in this Gospel is not Peter; it is Jesus. He had been executed by the Romans as a pretender from the family of David who had tried to make himself king; and it was necessary to combat the impression which had been made by this fact and to place in |219 their true light certain words and actions of his in Jerusalem. It is made clear that Pilate was never convinced that the charge against him was true, and that the sanhedrin had engineered his death for quite other reasons. The opinion of Pilate was reinforced by the comment of the Roman officer who had been put in charge of the crucifixion: 'Doubtless this man was a Son of God'; or, of course, 'a son of a god'. In these respects we see signs of a legitimate and necessary 'apologetic' in this Roman gospel.


It was necessary, too, to explain certain hard sayings of Jesus which were not intended by him to be taken literally. It seems that the Gentile mind had some difficulty in understanding some of his 'parables' or 'riddles', and we learn from Mark that the Jews themselves had not found it easy. The speech of Jesus was full of gigantic figures of speech: stars fall from heaven, wheat sprouts from the earth in marvellous fertility, camels pass through the eyes of needles, and mountains are cast into the midst of the sea. This was no artifice; it was a natural way of talking about profound spiritual truth; it gave pleasure. It was the product of a peasant culture, and was obviously akin to folk-lore, folksong, and folk-dance; it was the humble descendant of the old oriental culture which expressed its heavenly wisdom in a language which was drawn from myth and ritual and the rotation of the seasons and the revolution of the heavens. This idiom had been purified and glorified by the sages of Israel, both priests and prophets, and it lent itself superlatively well to the genius and purpose of Jesus. Only the household of personal disciples, however, could understand the mysticism of it, and even they had been slow to see and hear; to those outside it all came in riddles; or parables – for that is one meaning of the word. Such is the theory of parables which Mark emphasizes. The vision of the spiritual realities was a gift from heaven which was strangely missing in the wise men of Israel, an idea which is expressed equally strongly in Q.

The use of parables seems to have impressed the Roman ecclesia. A Marcan parable, with a correct mystical interpretation, is quoted by Clement; and the prophet Hermas composed a number of parables on the Marcan lines, though naturally very much inferior in power and far too complicated; these formed part of his regular teaching ministry,|220 and he is careful to explain that the understanding of parables is a special gift which is received in answer to prayer.

The first considerable section of parabolic teaching in Mark is the fourth chapter which contains the three seed parables and the theory of mystical vision. The second is the thirteenth or 'Little Apocalypse'. This apocalyptic teaching in Mark is non-eschatological. Jesus alludes in earlier chapters to the resurrection of the dead and the destinies of eternal life and eternal destruction; but he does not suggest the approach of what is called in modern theology the 'end of the world'; he does not say that these things are to come soon.

The imagery of falling stars and eclipses and earthquakes falls very far short of this, and seems to be used to indicate a period of world-war and confusion. They are well-worn prophetic images which occur as a matter of course, in any apocalypse, to suggest the intervention of the deity in human affairs. The strong sense of expectation in this Gospel is focused entirely upon the coming of the Son of Man in his glory to this generation. The meaning of this mysterious promise is not revealed. It must have engaged the attention of the Roman church at this time.


The Son of Man, in Jewish thought, was a man from heaven, a being of heavenly origin, who was the image or likeness of the eternal deity; God's man comes to put everything right; but the idea of pre-existence is never so much as mentioned by Mark, though the use of the title may be thought to imply it. Within the glory of the Son of Man title, however, is enfolded the more august title of Son of God; for the Son of Man will be displayed 'in the glory of his Father'. During his earthly life, he has unlimited spiritual authority, but his true being is hidden and his teaching veiled in mystery. As the volume is unrolled, eyes are opened and ears unstopped and mysteries revealed, and in due course it becomes clear that its supreme theme is that of conflict with the powers of evil which comes to a climax on the cross when he says, 'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?' Beyond that, it indicates, are the Resurrection and the coming in glory.

The Gospel thus falls into line with the Epistle. It is a study of the Passion of Jesus for a martyr church; it is a Gospel of suffering now and glory hereafter.
<< | top | >>