“Then came Jesus, whose distinctive, original voice I have argued can still be heard through the conversations of his followers which have shaped the Gospel text.” (Diarmaid MacCulloch, ‘Silence: a Christian History’ page 219)
Let’s start by laying aside the separate categories into which the components of Christianity have been divided: Jesus, Bible, Church and so on. Instead let’s think ourselves into a world of profound upheaval when old certainties are crumbling and something new is bubbling up. Let’s call this the Jesus experience. Suppose Jesus had died in 1930, the year before I was born. Mark, the first Gospel, was written around 1970. Now in 2013 all four Gospels have been written but you and I might not yet have seen all of them. We might know about at least one more Gospel, written by Thomas. Oh! and if we have seen copies of any of these we might not know who the author was. They would not have looked like books with a title and an author page. We might also have seen some of Paul’s letters which were written between 1950 and 1970. If you are over 60 you might know of the disappointment of older fellow Christians when the promised return of Jesus did not happen.
With these thoughts in mind we turn to the Gospel we know as Mark’s. It’s written in a terse, punchy style and begins:
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
‘Christ’ meant ‘anointed one’. Forget the later Christian doctrine of the Trinity. It wasn’t developed for at least another hundred and fifty years. We don’t know exactly what was in Mark’s mind when he wrote ‘son of God’. We do know that the phrase was used quite often in the Old Testament to refer to all Jews for example, plus angels and the king of Israel.
The beginning for Mark is the ministry of John the Baptist. History, they say, is written by the winners. There are clues in the Gospels suggesting rivalry between the followers of John and Jesus. We should read verse 7 with some caution:
The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water: but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.
‘The Holy Spirit’ is a Christian phrase: not one that John would have used. But John clearly appealed to lots of people in that period of widespread dissatisfaction with the way things were going both spiritually and politically. We are on surer ground in supposing that John strongly influenced Jesus and baptized him. It was a moment of profound enlightenment.
… he saw the heavens torn apart…..
After it Jesus needs to spend time absorbing the impact and the implications:
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan….
Typically, Matthew and Luke expand on Mark’s bald statement, so I’ll leave it until I get to their versions much later in this blog.
In 1964 I bought a copy of the then newly published New English Bible. It was interleaved with blank pages on which, over the years, I have written comments. So, for example, in 1984 I wrote beside verse 12: “And now we experience a different kind of wilderness in which the symbolism and mythology of Christianity no longer glow with meaning; become threadbare….The call is to find new life and energy.” It was to be another twenty years before that new life dawned for me.