Several nights before beginning this essay I watched the 2012 television production “Lincoln.” The film was well received in the media world and numerous awards were given to the film and to Daniel Day Lewis, who played Lincoln. Available to the writers, production staff, and actors were many artifacts, histories, photographs, and other video productions from which data could be drawn to develop the production. In fact, the historical events themselves are so well known that the sheer amount of data available no doubt frustrated the creative process of producing the film. The known facts of Mr. Lincoln’s presidency limited what the writers might have included in the script. It is nevertheless a work of creative fiction that is historically accurate—but not in every detail.1
Mark’s essay, on the other hand, is also a creative work, whose overall historical accuracy is dubious, but which, in part, is surely historically accurate. Very little was available to Mark from which to develop the narrative that he entitled: “Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ” (1:1). Mark’s story about Jesus narrates how the gospel (euaggellion, euaggelizomai) of the Markan community in the latter half of the first century began. Paul succinctly described the content of the gospel (“good news”) of the apostolic age in First Corinthians 15:1, 3-5. The natural context of “gospel” in Mark seems to be this later apostolic preaching of the church rather than the public career of Jesus.2 Its appearance in Mark’s story about the itinerant Galilean, Jesus the Anointed, strikes me as an anachronism. What Mark wishes to echo in the reader’s mind when he places “gospel” on the lips of Jesus is the apostolic message preached by his own community of faith.3
The anonymous author we call Mark wrote shortly after the destruction of Jerusalem (70 CE) and he had at his disposal very little historical data about the public career of Jesus the Galilean, who was crucified by the Romans around 30CE, some forty years earlier. Mark lived in a world of Greek language and culture while the subject of his essay lived in Galilee of Judea, as the Romans called it, a world of Aramaic language and culture. Mark had neither material artifacts nor written sources4 available to him to inform his narrative. What was available to him were anonymous oral reports, church tradition and beliefs, and liturgy.5
Mark’s literary product, therefore, is a narrative of his own creative imagination and fashioning. Perhaps it is better to say Mark’s Gospel is “fiction” (from the Latin fictio, a making or fashioning). Mark was responsible for imagining the whole and for weaving into his narrative what little information was available to him. He had no known curriculum vitae (course of life) of Jesus that had to be followed. Hence, he had to decide the sequence of things. He strung together independent episodes that he composed and other sub-groupings of material into an overall geographical frame6 through the use of summary statements, which were intended to expand the activities of Jesus well beyond the few typical episodic incidents described more fully in the narrative. These statements “summarize new activities over broad general geographic areas and indefinite periods of time.”7 It was a technique Mark hoped would overcome the impression of how little information he actually did know.
As an author, Mark was a child of his day. If one judges by the criterion of literary realism, Mark’s narrative is more akin to modern romance than to historical narrative.8 That is, “it is an idealistic tale with supernatural and marvelous features,” more like legends of King Arthur and Harry Potter than Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War.9
Mark employs certain techniques of modern narrative fiction. As an author he is omniscient and knows everything that happens even to the extent of knowing what the characters are thinking. Throughout the narrative he provides the reader interior views of characters. That is, he reveals to readers what characters are thinking. “This shift in a reader’s point of view from seeing events from the narrator’s perspective to seeing the situation from within a paper-character’s mind is a primary feature of the rhetoric of fiction by which a flesh-and-blood author develops characters and furthers the plot of a novel.”10
What I take away from Mark’s essay is a vague image, a silhouette of a life devoted to the welfare of the faceless multitudes of his people, a life that ended in tragedy. Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the sea, and a great multitude from Galilee followed; also from Judea and Jerusalem and Idumea and from beyond the Jordan and from about Tyre and Sidon a great multitude hearing all that he did came to him (Mark 1:7-8). According to Mark, Jesus told his disciples: Whoever would be great among you must be your servant and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:43-45).
Missouri State University
2The word “Gospel” appears in every NT book except John, Jude, James, 1-3 John, and 2 Peter.
3See Hedrick, “Parable and Kingdom. A Survey of the Evidence in Mark,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 27.2 (2000), 182.
4Dominick Crossan argued that Mark developed his story in part by reliance on the Gospel of Peter. See the brief reference in Paul Mirecki, “Peter Gospel of” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary 5:279-81. From my reading of the evidence it appeared that Crossan’s evidence could cut either way. In other words, the author of the Gospel of Peter could also have borrowed from Mark.
5For example, with respect to the Passover meal, compare Mark 14:22-24, 1 Cor 11:23-25, and Didache 9:1-5 for the similar format.
6Hedrick, “What is a Gospel? Geography, Time, and Narrative Structure,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 10.3 (1983), 255-68.
7Hedrick, “The Role of ‘Summary Statements’ in the composition of the Gospel of Mark: A Dialogue with Karl Schmidt and Norman Perrin,” Novum Testamentum 26 (1984), 289-311.
8Hedrick, “Realism in Western Narrative and the Gospel of Mark: A Prolegomenon,” Journal of Biblical Literature 126.2 (2007), 345-59.
9Hedrick, “Realism,” 353; for a description of the supernatural and marvelous features see 358.
10Hedrick, “The Problem of History in Mark,” pp. 140-42 in Unmasking Biblical Faiths.