Until recently I have had little interest in arguments that our apparently earliest written gospel, the Gospel of Mark, was composed as an attempt to teach the ideas of Paul as found in his letters. After reading Mark, Canonizer of Paul by Tom Dykstra I am now more sympathetic to the possibility that the author of this gospel really was writing as a follower of Paul.
Dykstra introduces his argument by pointing out how curiously uninterested the author of the Gospel of Mark is in the contents of Jesus’ teachings. Jesus is said to teach with authority and crowds are said to be impressed with his teachings but exactly what he taught in the synagogues or to those who crowded around to hear him in a house is left unsaid. Jesus does teach a lot of parables warning hearers of the consequences of not believing the gospel but the content of that gospel, the detail of what they must believe, is never stated. About the only teaching Mark’s Jesus is said to have delivered is little more than “Keep the commandments”.
Then there is the curious ending: why does Mark virtually leave the resurrection details out of the story altogether?
Dykstra sums up his argument:
The explanation I offer in this book can be summarized as follows. Mark’s primary purpose was to defend the vision of Christianity championed by Paul the Apostle against his “Judaizing” opponents. He undertook this defense because epistles written in the Apostle’s name were no longer deemed adequate, possibly because Paul himself was no longer around to personally defend his authority. Mark didn’t report any new teachings of Jesus because none were available to him: his main sources were the Old Testament, the Homeric epics, and Paul’s epistles, not the disciples or oral tradition. And so he wrote a Gospel that implicitly validated the authority of Paul and his epistles. . . . My goal in this book is mainly to present the evidence for a literary relationship between Mark and Paul’s epistles. (p. 23, my bolding)
This situation makes sense, Dykstra suggests, if Paul had died and his teachings were in danger of being eclipsed by his opponents.
In chapter two and relying primarily upon Michael Goulder’s argument in St. Paul vs. St. Peter: A Tale of Two Missions Dykstra presents a scenario of a sharp divide between two different types of gospels. Goulder was reviving (and responding to criticisms of) an 1831 interpretation by Ferdinand Baur.
Peter’s mission believed that the heavenly kingdom had already arrived and believers were already enjoying the resurrected life, while Paul stressed that the resurrection was yet to come and believers’ present life was more like the crucifixion. . . . Peter’s mission stressed tongues and visions and gifts of the spirit, while Paul’s stressed love and charity; Peter’s mission stressed the need to give away all of one’s possessions since the end had already come, while Paul’s mission advised people to keep working and earning a living. As will be seen, some of these differences are reflected in the text of Mark’ Gospel. (p. 35)
If the evangelist wanted to create a narrative to bolster the embattled teachings and authority of Paul he would need to project a dispute of his own and Paul’s day back into that narrative. The narrative would also need to show that apostles who came prior to Paul, even those claiming to be his brothers and those who were reputed as “pillars” in the church, failed to understand Jesus.
The conventional view of the Gospel of Mark is that it was put together by someone who collected a lot of traditions, especially oral traditions, about Jesus. Dykstra draws upon Thomas Brodie’s critique of the oral tradition source thesis and covers the same sort of detail that I have also covered in this blog:
- Oral Tradition Behind Gospels and OT: Unfounded, Unworkable and Unnecessary
Dykstra adds to “unfounded”, “unworkable” and “unnecessary” a fourth: Unhelpful
The desire to attribute as much historical accuracy as possible to the gospels is understandable, but this desire has been unhelpful in the quest for understanding this literature, because it has helped to perpetuate a deeply flawed paradigm in modern biblical scholarship. Under the influence of the oral tradition and form criticism paradigm, scholars studying the gospels have ripped apart these carefully constructed literary masterpieces and examined pieces of them out of context as if that were the best way to understand the text. (p. 64)
Pauline Themes in Mark
The second part of the book spotlights “Pauline themes in Mark”. The chapter headings prepare us for the details:
- Defending the Gentile Mission
- Presenting Jesus as the Crucified One
- Discrediting Jesus’ Disciples and Family
- Alluding to Paul in the Main Parables and the Ending
- Appropriating Paul’s Language and Example
Mark’s Gospel is certainly different from the other canonical gospels in that it is the only gospel in which Jesus is clearly portrayed as visiting gentile lands — especially the Decapolis on the other side of the lake — with intent to teach and heal. (He visits Tyre and Sidon in Matthew, too, but in that gospel he also instructs his disciples not to go to the gentiles but only to Israel and tells the woman there that he is not sent to any but Israel. In Mark he gives a different message — telling the woman, as Paul also wrote, that Israel must receive the favours first.) Even the Lake of Galilee is, uniquely in Mark, called a “Sea” that Jesus crosses back and forth as if to demonstrate an equal treatment of Jews and gentiles. Was the evangelist flagging to his readers that he was using this lake as a symbol of the Mediterranean Sea? At the same time Jesus is said to reject Jewish legalism and we know of Mark’s editorial comment explaining that Jesus declared all foods clean. There are two miraculous feedings in the gospel, one in Jewish territory where 5000 are fed with a few loaves of bread and fish and another on the other side of the “Sea” where 4000 are fed. Could the author not decide which tradition was the true one? Or was he pointing to both Jews and gentiles partaking of the same communal meal?
If the Gospel of Mark is short on Jesus’ teaching content it places significant stress upon Jesus as the one who has come to suffer crucifixion. The crucifixion is intimated from the opening chapter and becomes explicit in repeated prophecies from chapter 9 onwards. In the Gospel of Mark we sense that the original readers/hearers were themselves suffering persecution. Jesus is upheld as their pioneer and comforter and the one who will reward them and make all their current sufferings worthwhile. In this world now they suffer persecution (Mark 13) but they will be delivered when Jesus returns at the parousia. There is no resurrection appearance in this gospel.
In the letter to the Galatians Paul is set against three Jerusalem pillars, Peter, James and John. One of these is “the brother of the Lord”. Those same three are singled out as Christ’s inner disciples in the Gospel of Mark and they are set up to fail miserably. Even those brothers of Jesus in the gospel are said not to believe in or understand Jesus. All twelve disciples with Peter as their head flee from Jesus in the hour of persecution. Recall in Paul’s letter to Galatians Peter was condemned for weakly turning back from following the gospel Paul preached when representative from James turned up.
The key parable in Mark is the one about the sower and the seed. Dykstra points to several significant overlaps with Paul’s own seed, sowing and bearing of fruit imagery. The major parable towards the end of the gospel, the story of the wicked husbandman, likewise overlaps with key images in Paul’s letters — the beloved son, the heir, the inheritance. The parable might even be extended to refer to not just the demise of the Jerusalem priestly-political leaders but also the end of the Peter-James-John leadership of the church.
Then we have that famously inconclusive ending of Mark.
What the ending of Mark would make clear is that no apostle, neither Paul nor any of the others, was the first to see the resurrected Lordnor any of the others, was the first to see the resurrected Lord at the tomb or anywhere near Jerusalem. No resurrection sighting whether by Paul or Peter or James or John could thus bestow the Lord’s authority more effectively than any other. Moreover, for a resurrection appearance to be valid it would have to happen “in Galilee,” that is, by an apostle who was committed to the combined Jewish-Gentile messianic community. In this way the “last” and “least” of the apostles truly became the “first” and the “greatest.” (p. 140)
I am only outlining the main themes that Dykstra addresses; for details read the book (though I’ll no doubt explore some of them in more depth in future posts). It would be futile to cover all the examples of the vocabulary found in common in both Paul’s letters and Mark’s gospel. But note the significance of the word “gospel” itself and the requirement to “believe” it, and the theme of insiders versus outsiders. Dykstra further believes the gospel uses Paul’s life as the basis for what we read of John the Baptist and Jesus. In one place he writes
The parallels between Mark chapter 7 and Galatians 2:11-14 are too dense to be coincidental. Paul’s disputes with Peter are echoed in the disputes between Jesus and Peter; when messengers from James arrive at Antioch a conflict ensues just as a conflict ensued between Jesus and scribes who came from Jerusalem.
The Genre of Mark
Dykstra follows all of this with a section on the genre of the Gospel of Mark. A strange deju vu crept over me as I was reading this: much of Dykstra’s argument and references coincide with some of the posts I have written on genre here. Indeed, I was flattered that three posts of mine were referenced in a footnote:
- Are the Gospels Really Biographies? Outlining and Questioning Burridge
- Second thoughts on the Gospel of Mark as Biography
- The First Gospel was a Jewish Novel?
So I won’t repeat “myself” here, except for this where Dykstra’s own stress is more evident:
Genre is a function of your intention. . . . It is the context in which a text is presented that is the primary determinant of generic expectations and assumptions. (pp. 169-170)
From a broad survey of the earliest manuscripts that preserve New Testament books, Trobisch concludes that a spontaneous and haphazard process could not have resulted in the uniformity of certain characteristics that we find in the manuscripts. This leads to the conclusion that the manuscripts derive from a single archetype, which in turn suggests that a single editor or publisher deliberately created the entire package at some very early date. In other words, the earliest evidence we have that witnesses to how the New Testament texts were presented to their readers indicates that they were presented as scripture, in a New Testament counterpart to what was destined to become seen as the Old Testament. Trobisch’s theory turns the entire field of canon history on its head: instead of a long history of independent writings gradually being assembled into a whole, the whole is promulgated at once, and htere’s a long history of ultimately failed attempts to dispute parts of it. (pp. 172-173)
Trobisch’s book is one I have yet to cover in posts here. It is certainly thought-provoking.
The Gospels, then, may well have been composed in order to be read as a new Scripture. Paul’s letters may well also have been collected to serve as Scripture. I bypass here the details of the discussion and why the gospels are not “historiography” but cohere with a “Scripture genre” that correlates with certain Jewish Scriptures.
Finally Dykstra addresses the question of what all this means for historicity.
Interesting book. Worth a read. Several questions and alternative scenarios have been raised in my mind. I like to work with some fresh ideas.