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THE GREEK GOSPEL—MARK.
The Christianity of the Greek countries had still greater need than those of Syria for a written version of the life and teaching of Jesus. It appears at the first glance that it would have been very simple, for the satisfaction of that demand, to translate the Hebrew Gospel, which shortly after the fall of Jerusalem had taken a definite form. But translation pure and simple was not the fashion of those times: no text had sufficient authority to cause it to be preferred over others; it is, moreover, doubtful if the little Hebrew pamphlets of the Nazarenes could have passed the sea and gone out of Syria. The Apostolic men who were in communication with the Western Churches trusted to their memories, and without doubt did not carry with them works which would have been unintelligible to the faithful. When the necessity for a Gospel in Greek made itself felt, it was composed of fragments. But, as we have already said, the plan, the skeleton, the book almost 59in its entirety, were sketched out in advance. There was at bottom but one way of telling the life of Jesus, and two disciples, working separately, one at Rome, the other at Kokaba, the one in Greek, the other in Syro-Chaldaic, could not but produce two works very much like each other.
The general lines, the order of the narrative, had already been settled. What had to be created were the Greek style and the choice of the necessary words. The man who accomplished this important work was John-Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter. Mark, it appears, had seen when a child something of the facts of the Gospel; it may even be believed that he was at Gethsemane. He had personally known those who had played a part in the drama of the last days of Jesus. Having accompanied Peter to Rome, he probably remained there after the death of the Apostle, and passed through the terrible crisis which followed the event in that town. It was there that, according to all appearances, he put together the little book of forty or fifty pages which was the corner stone of the Greek Gospels.
The document, although composed after the death of Peter, was in a sense his work; it was the way in which he had been accustomed to relate the life of Jesus. Peter knew scarcely any Greek; Mark served him as dragoman; hundreds of times he had been the channel through which this marvellous history had passed. Peter did not follow a very rigid order in his preaching; he cited facts and parables as the exigencies of his teaching required. This licence of composition is also found in the book of Mark. The distribution of the subject is often logically at fault; in some respects the work is very incomplete, since entire parts of the Life of Jesus are wanting, of which complaint was made even in the second century. On the other hand, the clearness, the precision of detail, the originality, the picturesqueness, the life of this first narrative were 60not afterwards equalled. A sort of realism renders the form heavy and hard; the ideality of the character of Jesus suffers from it; there are incoherencies, inexplicable whimsicalities. The first and the third Gospels greatly surpass that of Mark in the beauty of the discourses, the happy application of the anecdotes; a crowd of touching details have disappeared, but as an historical document the Gospel of Mark is greatly superior. The strong impression left by Jesus is there found almost entire. We see him really living and acting.
The part which Mark took in so singularly abridging the great discourses of Jesus is astonishing. These discourses could not have been unknown to him: if he has omitted them, he must have had some motive for doing so. The somewhat narrow and dry spirit of Peter is perhaps the cause of this suppression. This spirit is certainly also the explanation of the puerile importance which Mark attaches to the miracles. The working of wonders in his Gospel has a singular character of heavy materialism, which for the moment recalls the reveries of the magnetizers. The miracles are painfully accomplished by successive steps. Jesus works them by means of Aramaic formulae, which have a Cabbalistic air. There is a struggle between the natural and supernatural forces: the evil yields only step by step, and under reiterated injunctions. Add to this a sort of secret character, Jesus always forbidding those who are the recipients of his favours. to speak of them It is not to be denied that Jesus comes out of this Gospel not as the delightful moralist whom we love, but as a terrible magician. The sentiment with which he inspires the majority of those about him is fear; the people, terrified by his miracles, pray him to depart out of their coasts.
It is not to be concluded from this that the Gospel of Mark is less historic than the others; quite the 61contrary. Things which offend us in the highest degree were of the first importance to Jesus and his immediate disciples. The Roman world was even more than the Jewish world the dupe of these illusions. The miracles of Vespasian are conceived on exactly the same lines as those of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. A blind man, a lame man, stop him on the public road, and beg him to cure them. He cures the first by spitting on his eyes; the second by treading upon his leg. Peter appears to have been principally struck by these prodigies, and we may readily believe that he insisted much upon them in his preaching. Hence the work which he inspired has a physiognomy peculiar to itself. The Gospel of Mark is less a legend than a memoir written by a credulous person. The characters of the legend, the vagueness of the details, the softness of the outlines, strike one in Matthew and Luke. Here, on the contrary, everything is taken from life; we feel that we are in the presence of memories.
The spirit which rules in this little book is certainly that of Peter. In the first place, Cephas plays there an eminent part, and appears always at the head of the apostles. The author is in no way of the school of Paul, yet in various ways he approaches him much more nearly than in the direction of James by his indifference with regard to Judaism, his hatred for Pharisaism, his lively opposition to the principles of the Jewish theocracy. The story of the Syro-Phœnician woman (Mark vii. 24, et seq.), which evidently signifies that the Pagan may obtain grace, provided he have faith, is humble and recognises the precedence of the son of the house, is in perfect harmony with the part which is played by Peter in the history of the centurion Cornelius. Peter, it is true, appears much later to Paul as a timid man, but he was none the less, in his day, the first to recognise the calling of the Gentiles.62
We shall see later what kind of modifications it was thought necessary to introduce into the first Greek version, in order to make it acceptable to the faithful, and how, from that revision, emerged the Gospels attributed to Matthew and Luke. One cardinal fact of primitive Christian literature is that these connected, and in a sense more complete texts, did not cause the primitive text to disappear, The little work of Mark was preserved, and soon, thanks to the convenient but altogether erroneous hypothesis which makes of him “a divine abbreviator,” he took his place amongst the mysterious four evangelists. Is it certain that the text of Mark can have remained pure from all interpolations,—that the text which we read to-day is purely and simply the first Greek Gospel? It would be a bold thing to affirm that it is. At the very time that it was found necessary to compose, other Gospels bearing other names, taking Mark for the foundation, it is very possible that Mark himself may have been retouched, whilst his name was still left at the head of the book. Many particulars appear to suppose a sort of retroactive influence upon the text of Mark, exercised by the Gospels composed after Mark. But these are complicated hypotheses of which there is no absolute proof. The Gospel of Mark presents a perfect unity and, except for certain matters of detail where the manuscripts differ, apart from those little retouchings, from which the Christian writings have, almost without exception, suffered, it does not appear to have received any considerable addition since it was composed.
The characteristic feature of the Gospel of Mark was, from the first, the absence of the genealogies and of the legends relating to the infancy of Jesus. If there was a gap which ought to be filled up for the benefit of Catholic readers, it was to be found there. And yet no attempt was made to fill it. Many other 63particulars, inconvenient from the apologist’s point of view, were not erased. The story of the Resurrection alone presents itself in Mark with evident traces of violence. The best manuscripts stop after the words ephobountogar (xvi. 8). It is scarcely probable that the primitive text should have finished so abruptly. On the other hand, it is very likely that something followed which was shocking to received ideas, and it was cut out, but the conclusion ephobountogar being very unsatisfactory, various little clauses were invented, not one of which possessed sufficient authority to exclude the others from the manuscripts.
When Matthew, and, above all, Luke, omit certain passages which are actually in Mark, are we forced to conclude that these passages were not in the proto-Mark? We are not. The authors of the second version selected and omitted, guided by the sentiment of an instinctive art and by the unity of their work. It has been said, for example, that the Passion was wanting in the primitive Mark, because Luke, who has followed him up to that point, does not follow him in the narrative of the last hours of Jesus. The truth is that Luke has taken for the Passion another guide more symbolical, more touching than Mark, and Luke was too great an artist to muddle his colours. The Passion of Mark, on the contrary, is the truest, the most ancient, the most historical. The second version in any case is always blunter, more governed by a priori, reasons than those which have preceded it. Precise details are matters of indifference to generations which have not known the primitive actors. What is pre-eminently required is an account with clear outlines and significant in all its parts.
There is everything to lead us to believe that Mark did not write down his Gospel until after the death of Peter. Papias assumes this when he tells us that Mark wrote “from memory” what he had from Peter. Finally the fact that the Gospel of Mark contains 64evident allusion to the catastrophe of the year 70 is decisive when we admit the unity and integrity of the work. The author puts into the mouth of Jesus in Chapter xiii. a species of apocalypse wherein are intermingled predictions relative to the capture of Jerusalem and the approaching end of time. We believe that this little apocalypse, in part designed to induce the faithful to retire to Pella, was spread amongst the community of Jerusalem about the year 68. It certainly did not then contain the prediction of the destruction of the Temple. The author of the Johanine apocalypse, however well he may have understood the Christian conscience, did not yet believe, in the later days of 68 or the early days of 69, that the Temple would be destroyed. Naturally all the collections of the life and words of Jesus which adopted this fragment as prophetic would modify it in the light of accomplished facts, and would see in it a clear prediction of the ruin of the Temple. It is probable that the Gospel of the Hebrews in its first form contained the apocalyptic discourse in question. The Hebrew Gospel, indeed, certainly contained the passage relating to the murder of Zecharias, son of Barachias, a feature which took its rise about the time of the apocalyptic discourse in question. Mark would scarcely venture to neglect a matter so striking. He supposes that Jesus in the last days of his life clearly foresaw the ruin of the Jewish nation, and took that ruin as the measure of the time which must elapse before his second appearing. “In those days after that tribulation . . . they shall see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory.” Such a formula notoriously assumes that at the moment when the author wrote the ruin of Jerusalem was accomplished, but accomplished very lately.
On the other hand, the Gospel of St Mark was composed before all the eye-witnesses of the life of Jesus were dead. Hence we may see within what narrow 65limits the possible date of the compilation of the book is restricted. In all ways we are brought to the first years of calm which followed the war of Judea. Mark could not have been more than fifty-five years old.
According to all appearances, it was at Rome that Mark composed this first attempt at a Greek gospel, which, imperfect though it is, contains the essential outlines of the subject. Such is the old tradition, and there is nothing improbable in it. Rome was, after Syria, the headquarters of Christianity. Latinisms are more frequent in the little work of Mark than in any other of the New Testament writings. The biblical texts to which reference is made recall the Septuagint. Many details lead to the belief that the writer had in view readers who knew little of Palestine and Jewish customs. The express citations from the Old Testament made by the author himself may be reduced to one; the exegetical reasonings which characterise Matthew and even Luke are wanting in Mark; the name of the Law never drops from his pen. Nothing, in fact, obliges us to believe that this may be a work sensibly different from that of which the Presbyter Joannes in the first years of the second century said to Papias:—“The Presbyters still say this: Mark, become the interpreter of Peter, wrote exactly but without order all that he remembered of the words and actions of Christ. For he did not hear or follow the Lord; but later, as I have said, he followed Peter, who made his didascalies according to the necessities of the moment, and not as if he wished to prepare a methodical statement of the discourses of the Lord; hence Mark is in no way to be blamed if he has thus written down but a small number of details, such as he remembered them. He had but one concern, to omit nothing that he had heard, and to let nothing pass that was false.”66
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