Session 1: The Beginning of the Gospel
Session 1: The Beginning of the Gospel
An exploration of the introduction and background information to Mark's gospel.

Bible Passage


The Gospel according to St Mark can seem like something of a Cinderella among the Gospels. For many hundreds of years it was used in public worship far less than any other of the Gospels. It never attracted the great –indeed the encyclopaedic – commentaries of scholars and saints across the centuries. Unlike St John’s Gospel, where everybody who was anybody in the history of the Christian Church seemed to want to write a commentary on it, St Mark attracted relatively little attention from the great expositors of Scripture in the early and mediaeval Church. Its brevity made it seem less useful than the fuller accounts of the other Gospel writers, and its style and language are apparently very straightforward (apparently; as we shall see, there’s rather more to it than that). In the most solemn week of the Christian year, the week leading up to Easter, it was the narratives of Matthew and John that were used in public worship and that eventually attracted the great musical settings like those of Johann Sebastian Bach (he did write a setting of Mark’s Passion narrative but nothing survives, probably because it would not have had a prominent place in the regular liturgy of Holy Week like the others).

And yet, Mark’s Gospel still has, for all sorts of readers, an exceptional impact. Two of the foremost Christian communicators of the twentieth century– one of them happily still with us – have claimed that they owe their Christian faith simply to readingMark without any particular preparation. The great German Protestant theologian Jürgen Moltmann was a prisoner of war in Scotland in 1945; he and his fellow-prisoners had just been shown photographs of the horrors in the camps of Belsen and Buchenwald, and were dealing with the nightmare realization that they had been fighting for a regime responsible for unimagined atrocity. Moltmann had little Christian background and no theological education, but when an army chaplain distributed copies of the Bible,

‘I read Mark’s Gospel as a whole and came to the story of the passion ; when I heard Jesus’ death cry, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ I felt growing within me the conviction:this is someone who understands you completely, who is with you in your cry to God and has felt the same forsakenness you are living in now . . . I summoned up the courage to live again.’ [1]

A similar story is told by the late Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, who did so much to open up to Westerners the Russian Orthodox tradition of prayer. As a sceptical young man he had been persuaded to attend a camp for young Russians, and attended an address by a celebrated and very saintly Orthodox theologian. The address infuriated and disgusted him, and he went home determined to confirm for himself the emptiness and stupidity of Christianity by reading the Gospels; he chose to start with Mark simply because it was the shortest.

‘The feelingI had occurs sometimes when you are walking along in the street, and suddenly you turn round because you feel someone is looking at you. While I was reading, before I reached the beginning of the third chapter, I suddenly became aware that on the other side of my desk there was a Presence…

I realized immediately: if Christ is standing here alive, that means he is the risen Christ.’ [2]

He committed himself there and then to the Christian faith and lived it out in a variety of costly ways for the next seventy years, bringing many other people to the acknowledgement of that same Presence he had encountered.

What is a Gospel?

With such testimonies, it would obviously be rash to ignore a text like this. It is a puzzling book, though; and it would have been puzzling for a reader taking it up in the first Christian century, perhaps just as puzzling as it is today. We know from the letters of St Paul that – by the time Mark was probably written– the word for ‘good news’, euangelion in Greek, was already commonly used by Christians as a sort of short hand for the Christian story, the Christian message. A book called ‘The Good News about Jesus’ would not have been too surprising for a Christian of that era. But if you didn’t happen to be an insider and you came across a book with a title like this, what would you think? Euangelion is actually a piece of political jargon. Euangelion, literally ‘a bit of good news’ or ‘a pleasing message’, was the word you would have used in the ancient world as the routine official designation for an important public announcement. An euangelion was a press release from the Buckingham Palace or Downing Street of the day announcing a significant event of public interest: the emperor’s son had got engaged or had been invested with some dignity, a princess had had a baby, the army had defeated the Germans, a city on the border of the Persian Empire had been captured. Something had happened to be glad about; but, a bit more than that, the something that had happened was likely in some way, great or small, to change things in public life. An euangelion, a ‘gospel’, a good message, is a message about something that alters the climate in which people live, changing the politics and the possibilities; it transforms the landscape of social life.

So if you were a Greek-speaking subject of the Roman Empire, living somewhere around the eastern Mediterranean, that’s the set of associations you would have picked up if you’d happened upon this book – apparently the reading material of a small and eccentric and rather worrying religious sect. It is meant to be an official proclamation, and its opening words state that this is the beginning of an official proclamation about someone called ‘Jesus the anointed, God’s son’. Who is Jesus? What does it mean that he’s called ‘anointed’? And why exactly is this Jesus given the royal title of a Child of God? The very first verse of Mark’s Gospel would tell you that this was a book about ‘regime change’; someone’s new reign has been inaugurated. And that is of course exactly what Mark reinforces when he summarizes the preaching of Jesus himself. Jesus’ first words in the Gospel are an announcement that the kingdom of God is at hand:

After John had been handed over for imprisonment,Jesus went into Galilee announcing the official proclamation about God. The time has arrived, he said, the rule of God has come close, so change your minds. Trust this proclamation.

Mark 1:14

It sounds odd when we strip away some of the familiar vocabulary of our translations, but something like this would have been what people heard when they didn’t have two thousand years of Christian reading behind them. It’s an announcement that God is taking over. And so the reader is warned from the very first verse of Mark’s Gospel that she or he must look and listen in the Gospel for all the things that change the state of affairs in the world. This is going to be a book about change, a book about how the world came to look different, under different management. The title and the first chapter give warning to the reader that this is not just a chronicle about someone in the past; this is about how a particular person’s life altered the shape of what was possible for you and me, the readers.

Does this mean that it’s not a book of history or biography? A very interesting and rather complicated question. My imaginary reader in the ancient world would have seen it as actually quite like some ancient books of biography. In the ancient world a biography was not one of those 600-page door stoppers that you pick up in Waterstones, telling you everything you wanted to know, and quite a lot more, about some fleetingly famous politician or celebrity. An ancient biography would build up a series of anecdotes which would give you something like a set of snapshots ,pictures of your subject in this situation or that. You would thus have a chance to look at the main figure from several different points of view, in different situations, and you’d build up from that some sense of what kind of person he or she was. Mark’s method is not unlike that. He doesn’t bother too much about chronology. He doesn’t give you any dates. He doesn’t give you anything much like a connected story for the greater part of the Gospel, but he gives you these ‘snapshots’. Here is the anointed Jesus doing this, doing that, meeting one person, then another, drawing forth this reaction, then that. And as you work through this collection of apparently disconnected anecdotes, you begin to see what sort of person he is – and also perhaps on a second reading to see how the arrangement of the anecdotes is nowhere near as random as might at first appear. In the jargon of the scholars this means that Mark is mostly composed of what scholars call pericopai – paragraphs of information leading to a kind of punch line and a report of people’s reactions.‘So he said . . . and they were all amazed!’ That is how so many stories are told in Mark. It means that it would not have been by any means unrecognizable as history or biography; but there are elements that alert the reader that this is going to be no ordinary biography.

Who was Mark?

At this point, we need to step back a little bit before getting on to the real meat of what the Gospel has to say, and look very briefly at some of the scholarly debates about Mark that have been going on over the last half-century. It isn’t a simple story. The more people began to recognize the way Mark was built up – short snappy stories with a punch line – the more they thought that these stories had all the characteristics of traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation and polished carefully in their use by a whole community.This insight depended quite a lot on twentieth-century scholarship that had dealt with the development of folk-tales, showing how their form developed over generations. The problems began to arise when people concluded that in that case the reader could safely ignore any idea that Mark depended on first-hand witness.

Mark was just collecting– as you might say – the folk-tales of his community, and exactly what their origin was we couldn’t know. What we could know was something about the point they were meant to make in their developed form, polished by the retellings of a community. What their precise link was with anything Jesus said and did was bound to be obscure at best, and not of first importance. What matters for us as contemporary readers is working out the agenda of the writer and the community around him as he interprets the tradition to make sense for his own generation.

There are some problems here about the nature of history and tradition which we’d better put on one side for the moment; but the biggest difficulty with this approach – a difficulty that’s been recognized in scholarship for about forty years – is that it makes Mark himself, the writer, a rather dim and shadowy personality. Scholars began to say that it did not make sense after all to see Mark as just stringing together an assortment of anonymous folk-tales. The closer you look, the more obvious it is that Mark is thinking very carefully about how he places his stories: what belongs here, what belongs there. He nudges you constantly with little echoes and allusions, as if to say, ‘You rememberI said a few pages back . . . ? Bear that in mind, because this ought to click with that.’ As I’ll try to show in these meditations, there’s even a kind of echo between the very beginning and the very end. Mark is not a naïve writer, not somebody who simply has a card-index of useful stories about Jesus that he’s heard in Sunday school and is threading them together with no particular plan. He has a creative role as an individual writer. He has a single, connected message to give, an euangelion, an announcement, to make; and he is, to that extent, very much in control of his material.

But the whole question of the origins of his material remains a live one. A lot of scholars would now agree that in the mid-twentieth century the pendulum swung much too far in the direction of thinking that the stories here are essentially formed in the common life of the community – not personal reminiscence or personal creation, but formulaic stories emerging and being passed on. The question has been re-opened as to where and how the tradition begins. As we shall see later on, the opposition between individual memory and collective history is not nearly as simple as you might think. Some scholars, including especially Richard Bauckham of St Andrews, have argued recently that we have taught ourselves to be much too suspicious about the origins of traditions in the New Testament and even traditions about the New Testament. The text is written well within13the period when personal eyewitness memory would have been alive. If within, say, forty years of the likely writing of Mark’s Gospel there is a fairly coherent tradition about how it was written and by whom, we should think twice before just writing it off. And there is indeed such a tradition from very early in the second century – that the Mark who wrote the Gospel was the secretary of St Peter. Early in the second century a bishop in what is now Turkey recorded some of what he had picked up from his sources in the churches of Asia Minor, and one of the tradition she noted was that Mark took down what Peter had said, not putting it down in any particular order, but ‘interpreting’ what Peter was saying so that it would be accessible to new hearers and readers (there is also a casual and completely random detail that St Mark was known as Mark the ‘short-fingered’ – whether because he was thought to have this physical characteristic or because he wrote so briefly and economically, we don’t know).

Now we know from the New Testament that there was an early tradition that Mark was indeed associated with Peter. In the first letter ascribed to St Peter (1 Peter 5.13), the writer speaks of ‘my son Mark’ being with him in‘Babylon’ – probablyRome. It’s often been assumed that this is the same Mark who travelled with Paul, quarrelled with him (like a good many others), and eventually seems to have made it up with him (again, happily, like a good many others). So there you have one way of looking at the beginnings of the Gospel. Peter, preaching around the Mediterranean and particularly in Rome, makes use of a younger associate, a secretary or interpreter who writes down what he says but not in historical or chronological order. It is a tradition that has had quite a sceptical reception in modern scholarship; but some at least, as I’ve said, have begun to wonder whether we need to be quite so suspicious. I want to note just two initial points which might make us pause before we dismiss it entirely.

The first is, interestingly, that it doesn’t make a claim for direct eyewitness testimony. If you wanted to make up a legend about St Mark, you would surely be very tempted to say that he saw it all happen and wrote it down. But instead, it’s never presented as other than second-level testimony (contrast St John’s Gospel, which repeatedly points us to the testimony of someone who was present at the events recorded, and which was regarded from the earliest times as being directly based on the witness of a disciple): Mark listened to what Peter said, and wrote it down as best he could. And the second point is the recognition from early on that his text is not organized in a clear and tidy chronology. Perhaps the early second-century writers were simply puzzled by the way Mark was organized– as many of us might be; but the interesting thing is that they did not dismiss this brief and superficially hurried text entirely, in favour of the fuller and more systematic narratives of Matthew and Luke: as if there were something that gave Mark a distinctive quality. So it may be premature to write off the tradition of a connection with Peter; whether true or not, it explains why the Gospel found a footing.

Is the Mark in question the Mark we read about in the Acts of the Apostles, who travelled with Paul? The nuisance is that Mark is possibly the commonest name in the Roman Empire; there will have been any number of Marks around in any early Christian community. But to identify the author of a Gospel by a very common name might suggest that people were expected to know which of the countlessMarks in the Roman Empire was in question (if somebody were to circulate a text under the title of ‘Will’s Book’, you would expect that the intended readership would have an idea which Will had written it). There is a case, then, for the Gospel being associated with a Mark who was sufficiently high-profile in the early Church for people to recognize him – perhaps a Mark who had been a companion to one or both of the great apostles, the Mark of the Acts of the Apostles and of 1 Peter, of Colossians 4 and 2 Timothy 4.

There is one small cluster of possibly supportive evidence, though it is bound to be speculative. The Mark of the Acts of the Apostles, John Mark, belongs to what is obviously quite a well-to-do family in Jerusalem, a family which, like many such families, apparently has overseas connections, presumably through trading interests. Mark, we are told (Acts12.25), is close to (perhaps related to) Barnabas, the wealthy merchant from Cyprus who joined the Christian community and made over his property to it. It sounds as though Mark in Jerusalem fits into a network connecting Judaea with the Jewish trading settlements elsewhere in theMediterranean – a very common pattern, which in itself doesn’t tell us a great deal. Such networks and trading concerns were likely to have several outposts around the eastern Mediterranean; Jerusalem, Cyprus and Cyrene in North Africa were closely in touch (and we hear in Acts 11.20 of Christians from Cyprus and Cyrene leaving Jerusalem to preach in Antioch).

Now the mention of Cyrene might make us prick up our ears in relation to Mark’s Gospel; the one passage in the text which claims something close to first-hand testimony occurs in the story of Jesus’ trial and death, where 15we are informed(Mark 15.21) that Jesus’ cross was carried by Simon from Cyrene, ‘the father of Alexander and Rufus’. There can be no serious doubt that the author of the Gospel expects his audience or readers to know who Alexander and Rufus are; that is, he assumes that they will be familiar with what is almost certainly another eastern Mediterranean Jewish trading family with members and connections in different cities – one of whom, by an extraordinary historical accident, was directly involved in the events of Good Friday. There is no intelligible reason for the preservation of those names, Alexander and Rufus, unless there’s a personal connection. A Mark who lived in a community where Alexander and Rufus of Cyrene were familiar figures would fit comfortably with a Mark whose Jerusalem family had connections with the cosmopolitan world of merchants moving around in the Mediterranean, at home in the great Jewish colonies of NorthAfrica and Cyprus.

So we could conclude that it’s not unlikely that the Mark who wrote the Gospel is part of a particular social world, mobile, prosperous, moderately educated (otherwise I doubt whether St Paul would have wanted to make use of his services): a seriously helpful assistant for a wandering apostle. But at the heart of this stand Alexander and Rufus: they represent the point in the Gospel at which – you might say – we are one handshake away from the first Good Friday. Simon of Cyrene, of course, has commonly been portrayed in modern Christian art as an African; and the appropriateness of seeing the cross of Jesus carried by a man from that oppressed and abused continent has been so overwhelmingly obvious in so many people’s eyes that it is hard to challenge it – and the image itself of the cross carried by an African is a right and a crucial one. But we do as historians have to reckon with the fact that Simon of Cyrene has an unmistakably Jewish name; and the only really plausible reason for someone from Cyrene being in Jerusalem for a Jewish feast is that he is a Jew from the diaspora trading community who has come on pilgrimage (I was one of those involved in the 1980s in founding the Simon of Cyrene Theological Institute for the theological training of ministerial candidates from minority ethnic backgrounds in this country; my scholarly conscience and my Christian conscience were and are some what in tension over the use of the name…).

All of this also helps to make some sense of another ancient tradition which associates St Mark with Alexandria in Egypt, of which he is the patron. In the traditions of the Egyptian church, this is not only an association with Alexandria, however; it’s also, surprisingly at first, with Libya – which is where Cyrene is situated (I have listened in Libya to people repeating venerable Arabic traditions about Mark’s time of residence in the east of that country; there is a cave identified as a place where he spent time in solitude). We cannot know how ancient or reliable these traditions are; but a picture comes together which makes rough historical and social sense, the picture of a Gospel writer with quite widely flung links in cities of the Jewish diaspora. But it still leaves open the question of exactly where, let alone when, the Gospel was composed. At various times, scholars have declared with absolute certainty for Rome, Syria, northern Palestine and indeed several other places as well. Rome probably still leads the field; but I confess to being tempted by the case for Jewish–Roman North Africa, with its very close associations both with Jerusalem and with Rome.

Which takes us to Mark’s language. The Greek that he writes is not very literary: it’s not bad (certainly not like the bizarrely ungrammatical Greek of the Revelation of St John). Mark writes what you might call ordinary Daily Mail Greek, of the kind that professionals and travellers in the Mediterranean area would have used, a Greek that has picked up some Latin turns of phrase and even vocabulary. Mark occasionally makes use of Latin words in Greek spelling of just the kind that would have been used in the coastal cities around the Mediterranean. It’s the Greek of the big cosmopolitan trading towns, not the Greek of the study or of the literary classes. It is the language of a reasonably educated but not very bookish merchant class, with those tell-tale little Latin words stuck in. Matthew and Luke, in contrast – Luke particularly – like to make sure that they have the right words in Greek. The difference comes across in the words that Mark uses for Roman officials or for the local coinage, for example.And all this is, alas, no help at all in working out where it was written; that has to remain an open question, but the likelihood is clearly one of the commercial centres around the Great Sea.

As for the date: one helpful scholar remarked recently that it was either just after or just before AD 70 – which is not very illuminating for anyone who wants a straight answer. AD 70 was of course for the Jewish people the most traumatic date in the first Christian century, the year when Jerusalem was attacked and captured by the Roman army of Vespasian and Titus, when the independent administration of Judaea disappeared and the Temple was destroyed and the whole country laid waste. So when you read in Mark’s Gospel (chapter 13) the prophecies Jesus gives of coming troubles, you have a choice between believing that Jesus foresaw the coming troubles, or believing that Mark is using hindsight to polish, focus and dramatically expand some remembered words of Jesus to make them fit those troubles more closely. I don’t see a clear answer to this, though my own preference would be to think of Mark being written some time in the 60s – that is, before the fall of Jerusalem (there may be other reasons for this, which I’ll come to later). An early date has recently been argued for on the basis of a claim that one of the fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, written (unusually) in Greek, is a quotation from Mark’s Gospel; and if that were the case – given that at least some of the texts concealed around the Dead Sea were likely to have been deposited there around 70–it would obviously push the date back into the 60s or earlier. Unfortunately this is not a very reliable argument; it is not at all clear that the fragment is from Mark, and hardly any serious scholars would now accept this. But I mention it as one element in the world of current scholarship – and as an indication that the issue of the date of Mark is very far from being closed, less so than seemed to be the case half a century ago.

Why did Mark write his Gospel?

It is time to move back from this historical digression to the last part of what needs saying about the goal and purpose of the book. Once you see the force of Mark’s individual concerns – indeed, Mark’s individual genius – in the composition of the Gospel, it doesn’t matter quite so much whether you think – as most people still do – that it is the earliest of the Gospels or whether you think (with a small minority of scholars) that it is a very sophisticated adaptation of Matthew and Luke. Once you see that Mark is arguing a case, developing a vision, you see that the Gospel of Mark, surprisingly, is not very much less sophisticated than the Gospel of John. His ‘formulaic’ way of storytelling doesn’t at all argue against this. When we think of how you and I tell stories about our lives, we would all probably recognize that they fall quite soon into a stereotyped form (those of you who are long married and find yourselves telling an old and well-loved anecdote over the dinner table will probably be familiar with your spouse finishing your sentences for you – with varying degrees of forbearance – because he or she knows the story by heart). It doesn’t mean that the story is fiction, or even that the telling is not rooted in first-hand reporting, but the telling of it polishes and refines and narrows down. As I said earlier, the divide between imagining a community polishing and refining stories and an individual storyteller doing the same is not absolute.

Once again, many of us have had the experience of telling stories to children and being met with loud protests if we vary the formula. If St Peter had polished and refined his storytelling, it was no doubt in dialogue with a community who were quite capable – like any good five-year-old – of saying from time to time, ‘That’s not how you said it last night.’ So I don’t want to assume that our choice is between St Peter dictating to Mark in a study, or Mark taking down his every word precisely in a public meeting, or a whole lot of anonymous traditions washing around in a community and waiting for an editor, or an independent writer crafting semi-fictional stories to illustrate his theology. Anyone who has listened to anecdotes being told in the Middle East today will soon get a glimpse of how the process works; and it is certainly none of the above. When I first visited Egypt, over thirty years ago, and spent time with some of the monks in the desert communities, I realized for the first time what sort of process the first composition of St Mark’s Gospel might have been. You would hear people telling stories about a favourite monk from one of the great monasteries: ‘One day, Fr Philemon was going to so-and-so. And a man said to him . . . and he said . . . and the man replied. . . and Fr Philemon said . . . and they were amazed. And another time, Fr Philemon was going on a journey and the guard on the train said to Fr Philemon. . .’and so it goes on. Or there is the literature that we have about one of the great Greek saints of the twentieth century, Elder Porphyrios, who died some years ago, and these books are cast in very much the same way. Testimony is gathered from a wide range of people (‘I remember when Fr Porphyrios came and spoke to us at such and such a convent. . . and he said . . . and we said . . . and we asked him . . . and he said . . .’) and the stories are strung together to make a point or illustrate a theme. The individual testimony and the community process work together: it is certainly not a question of the stories simply being created by communities or by individuals to serve their own purpose– the process is richer and deeper than that. Equally, it is not a question of a strict relating of unchallengeable fact. You could express the point by saying that the narrative crystallizes a relationship. Telling stories like this about Fr Philemon or Elder Porphyrios or Jesus of Nazareth is not telling stories about a distant presence of third-person interest, but witnessing to a relationship that makes a dramatic difference. You, and the way you live, speak and act now, are part of the difference they have made.

The question of whether– to take one of the more dramatic stories I heard in Egypt – Fr Philemon ever did actually stop a train by his prayers is not one that you can answer very straightforwardly (granted that it is quite unusual to stop trains by prayer). But what is it like to encounter, to be in relationship with, a person whom you could very well believe to be capable of stopping a train by prayer? What matters is not trawling through the records of the railway company to get a clear yes or no (which would be unlikely even with comprehensive documentation; who knows exactly why trains break down at this rather than that point?), but trying to understand what is the nature of the relationship that has persuaded you that the world is that different, that surprising, that exciting, that you can just about imagine trains being stopped by prayer. Unless we’re prepared to see Mark’s Gospel in something of this light, we may misunderstand it and become caught in a stand off between obstinate literalism about every detail and obstinate scepticism about everything that sounds ‘supernatural’. That is the way to avoid the real challenge, the difficulty and the promise of the Gospel. The narrative first and foremost depicts and seeks to realize for us, the readers, a relationship within which the stories make sense and are credible: we’re not being invited to make a detached judgement. Which is not a round about way of saying that the miracles in Mark are not real, but to say that to read the miracle stories in Mark is precisely not to read a series of remarkable magical happenings. It is to read about a person around whom extraordinary things happened, whatever the exact detail, and to see that such storytelling about these events becomes credible because it has changed the teller and the hearer, has created a relationship of utter confidence which is now offered to the reader/listener to share.

So the text of St Mark’s Gospel sets out two challenges for the reader. The first is simply to let yourself be addressed by this central figure. The storyteller Mark is writing out of a relationship, a compelling relationship which it is his purpose to make real to you, so that whether or not you want to be in the same kind of relationship, you have to pay attention to the fact of the relation as the writer presents it. And so, second, you have to grasp and share in the changed state of affairs to which the story testifies – the changed state of affairs which is now being officially announced in an euangelion, a press release from the palace, which has changed the political climate, which has changed the regime. Those are the challenges: can you allow yourself to be spoken to by this figure?can you therefore enter into the changed state of affairs that his story is about?

Charles Williams, the great Anglican poet, critic and playwright, wrote memorably about Mark that what is said about the kingdom of God in the Gospel is ‘not a state of being without which one can get along very well. To lose it is to lose everything else.’[3] This expresses very well the total change of perspective that’s being evoked; and he goes on to say that you can’t just take out material about the kingdom of God and the coming of judgement from Mark – the material usually referred to as ‘apocalyptic’ – and expect it to stay the same. ‘To remove the apocalyptic is not to leave the ethical but to leave nothing at all.’ This is a story, says Williams, in the first chapter of which ‘Witness is born out of heaven and on earth and from hell.’[4] It is a superb summary of that first chapter– the voice from heaven at the baptism of Jesus (Mark 1.11); the witness given to Jesus in the response of the people who recognize the exceptional authority and newness of what he says and how he says it (1.27);and the voice of the demons who protest at his presence (1.24, 34). This is – we are being warned – a deeply serious story, a world-changing story, whose ramifications extend well beyond the villages of Palestine. And if these events do indeed change the world – change the regime – then the central figure is someone who has the authority and the capacity to change anything and everything in the world. To quote Charles Williams’ great friend, C.S. Lewis, ‘He’s not a tame lion, you know.’ No accident that Mark’s traditional symbol in Christian art is a lion.

The point is made as soon as the Gospel begins. Mark brings off a great narrative triumph by pushing Jesus on to the stage without a word of introduction. He doesn’t tell you who this is beyond his name and his place of origin – no family background, no Christmas story. The curtain goes up with a clatter, and there on stage is the central figure; no prelude, no apologies, no explanations, there is the anointed one. And that is how the text will go on; which is why the Jesus of St Mark is not – as some unimaginative readers of an earlier generation sometimes thought– an innocent and straightforward human prophet devoid of all the theological trappings that gather around him in the other Gospels.On the contrary: thisJesus is arguably stranger, more ‘transcendent’, more simply worrying than the Jesus of any of the other Gospels. And now we must go on to investigate just what sort of change he is supposed to have brought about.

Discussion Questions


[1] Jürgen Moltmann, A Broad Place: An autobiography (London, SCM Press, 2007), p. 30.

[2] Gillian Crow, ‘This Holy Man’. Impressions of Metropolitan Anthony (London, Darton, Longman and Todd, 2005), p. 41.

[3] Charles Williams,He Came Down from Heaven (London, Heinemann, 1938), p. 60.

9A similarstory is told by the late MetropolitanAnthonyBloom,who did somuch to open up to Westernersthe RussianOrthodoxtraditionof prayer.As a scepticalyoung man he had been persuadedto attend a camp foryoung Russians,and attendedan addressby a celebratedand very saintlyOrthodoxtheologian.The addressinfuriatedand disgustedhim, and hewent home determinedto confirmfor himselfthe emptinessand stupidityof Christianityby readingthe Gospels;he chose to start with Mark simplybecauseit was the shortest.The feelingI had occurs sometimeswhen you are walkingalong in thestreet, and suddenlyyou turn round becauseyou feel someoneis lookingatyou. While I was reading,before I reachedthe beginningof the thirdchapter,I suddenlybecameaware that on the other side of my desk therewas a Presence. . .I realizedimmediately:if Christ is standinghere alive, that means he is therisen Christ.2He committedhimselfthere and then to the Christianfaith and lived it outin a varietyof costly ways for the next seventyyears, bringingmany otherpeopleto the acknowledgementof that same Presencehe had encountered