[Note: This post has been substantially updated.]
In any very large endeavor—as is the exploration of Christian origins—from time to time an intellectual synthesis is required, one that attempts to pull together various lines of research. Without such a synthesis, the world of early Christian studies quickly becomes a bewildering quagmire, with myriad disparate elements and little overall unity. So, I’d like to provide my personal synthesis regarding a critical text: the Gospel of Mark. This will take the form of a series of posts—one post for each of the sixteen chapters of that gospel. Recognizing that I may well be quite wrong in this venture, I candidly call it an “experiment.”
After many generations of dealing with the Synoptic Problem, the overwhelming conclusion of New Testament scholars is that the Gospel of Mark was the earliest canonical gospel. I accept this view. It is also quite evident to me that the order of production was Mark – Matthew – Luke.It is now also clear to me that all the canonical gospels were written in the second century, not the first. They presuppose the existence of brick and mortar synagogues, of Pharisees in the Galilee, and they reflect a time when Catholic Christianity had already moved into the diaspora and was no longer Jewish in any meaningful sense.
Furthermore, long-standing research has shown that Marcion of Pontus played a critical role in gospel formation. My recent series of posts “Questioning the Gospel of Marcion” has argued that Marcion did not actually produce a written text. His theology was his “gospel” (the meaning of the term evangelion being narrowly [and falsely] interpreted by modern pundits). And that theology preceded the writing of the canonical gospels—it even provoked them. If all this is correct, then we may conclude:
(1) the Gospel of Mark was penned well into the second century CE; and
(2) the “Catholic” Gospel of Mark was written in response to, and in repudiation of, Marcion’s theology.
R. Joseph Hoffmann has observed:
Marcion’s theory of false apostleship finds specific refutation in the NT as well, both in the expanded edition of his gospel (“Luke”), and in the work by the same writer which has come down in the tradition as the Acts of the Apostles. In these works, Marcion’s theory is countered by a correction of the apostolic witness read back into the life of Jesus himself, and certified by the gift of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2:1 ff. The post-resurrection appearances of Jesus and the further teaching activity associated with these appearances respond, on this reckoning, to Marcion’s belief that the earliest disciples of Jesus had misunderstood his message and the revelation granted to them. (R. Hoffmann, “Marcion, On the Restitution of Christianity: An Essay on the Development of Radical Paulinist Theology in the Second Century.” Chico: Scholar’s Press, 1984, pp. 113–14.)
While I disagree with some views presented in Hoffmann’s book, the above seems correct to me. Hoffmann goes on to detail passages in the canonical gospels that can be convincingly explained as rebuttals of Marcion’s theses. Those theses, as we know from the voluminous writings of the Church Fathers (especially Tertullian), included Marcion’s belief in a wholly spiritual and transcendent god, one that has no truck with the creation or with materiality. This, of course, could not be the god of the Jews, and hence Marcion placed a wedge, as it were, not merely between the transcendent god and Yahweh, but also between the new Christian religion and Judaism.
I have also argued on this website (here and here) that Marcion’s theology belonged to the christology I have labeled “Stage 2.” This christology did not yet know Jesus of Nazareth, the unique and all-powerful Son of God. Rather, Stage 2 christology knew a spiritual Jesus that indwells the human being. This conception (also known to Paul) dovetails perfectly with Marcion’s view of a spiritual, transcendent god who has nothing to do with the material creation. According to Marcion’s view, then, we have a divine, life-saving Jesus indwelling a worthless body and descending into a hostile, uncomprehending world.
That, indeed, is the detectable core of the Gospel of Mark, after later Catholic accretions are removed. I have now attempted to remove those accretions—which actually make up most of the extant gospel. When the scissors are finally put aside and the chopping is done, what we are left with is a short and stunning “core” to the Gospel of Mark, one very different from the received text. In an entirely provisional way, I will present that core in the posts to follow.
It is not my contention that such a hypothetical “core Gospel of Mark” ever existed in the form to be presented in the coming posts. Even less am I suggesting that this “core” is equivalent to a written Gospel of Marcion—elsewhere I have strenuously argued that no such written “Gospel of Marcion” ever existed (contrary to modern scholarly opinion). Rather, I am attempting something different here: to begin the work of reconstructing a text (“UrMark”) that some scholars suppose Marcion knew and used as the basis for his theology. This view is very old. In the nineteenth century A. Ritschl, F. C. Baur, G. Volckmar, A. Hilgenfeld, and T. Zahn all supported the idea that Marcion was dependent on a textual prototype to the Gospel of Mark (Hoffmann, op. cit, xii). The Oxford NT scholar William Sanday concluded that Marcion had access to different versions of “Luke.” We may wonder: Are not GMark itself, and its earliest prototype, different versions of “Luke”?
Thus, I will be presenting readers with an experiment: reconstruction of a text whose existence some scholars have hypothesized but many others have denied even existed. This is all par for the course. Agendas are so strong in this religious field that many will not accord such “experiments” the least attention. But for those of us who are still asking questions based on the evidence at hand, we have a right to hypothesize ‘the next step’ when the evidence stops… That is what I am doing here. And if I am wrong, no harm has been done. But, I suspect, this exercise in reconstructing the first “Gospel of Mark” will prove quite revealing…