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Thomas J. Burns
- Published on Amazon.com
In the early 1970's when I attended grad school, all my professors were in basic agreement that St. Mark's Gospel was a primitive early template for the more advanced theological works of Matthew, Luke and the profoundly mystical John; and second, that Markan theology, where it existed at all, was most likely found in "Messianic Secrets" and passion predictions. Francis J. Moloney, on the other hand, appraises this first Gospel as almost pure theology where Mark out-Johns John, if such is possible. This is a masterful and challenging analysis that turns much of twentieth century conventional wisdom about Mark on its head.
Moloney's revision begins at the very start of this Gospel, which he regards as very similar to John's majestic opening. Perhaps less prosaically than John but with equal force Mark reveals the identity of Jesus the Christ, and according to Moloney this opening declaration of identity will remain with the reader [then and now] for the tough sledding that is ahead. In a sense this early dispatch of Christological questions freed the sacred author to devote his work to a new agenda, a treatise upon what we might call Christian identity, or more specifically, the anthropology of the true believer.
Moloney tentatively places the origin of this Gospel in southern Syria, at a time after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Perhaps more germane is the audience: the assumption carried throughout this Gospel is that the first listeners were familiar with the story, i.e., Christians, and thus Mark's project is one of pastoral interpretation, not introduction. Curiously, in this Gospel the reader's eyes are drawn to those around Jesus as much as to the Master himself, for this is a tale of their reactions to Jesus' words and deeds. It is not a pretty picture, despite a promising beginning.
Mark identifies Jesus, describes his baptism and sojourn in the desert, and then in 1:14 sets the tale in motion with the call of the first disciples. In 3:13, after a series of impressive miracles, Jesus designates the Twelve. They are, in Moloney's view, those who are "with him." What follows is a narrative of just how well they remained "with him." In 6:7 Jesus sends them two by two to do what he has been doing, the Father's work. This is the high water mark of the Twelve in this Gospel, and sadly Moloney observes that in 6:30 the Twelve return quite full of themselves, eager to report what they had done, not what the Lord had accomplished through them.
It would be different after that, one bungling episode of misunderstanding after another, beginning with the breads narratives later in Chapter 6. As the story unfolds Moloney contends that it is harder to distinguish between the inner disciples and the general bystanders; the syntax itself has been engineered for that effect. In 7:18 the disciples are compared to blind Pharisees and contrast poorly to the feisty faith of the Canaanite woman [7:28] and, the deaf/mute [7:31]. Jesus' exasperation is growing perceptibly; in 9:19 he is ready to disown them.
As this Gospel draws to a close, those who are "with Jesus" become nearly invisible and his enemies become the main protagonists--a reversal of John's rendering. Moloney takes note of the landscape: after Jesus' arrest Peter follows from a distance [14:54] as do the devoted women [15:40]. But most remarkably, God the Father is nowhere to be found, a point made by none other than Jesus himself in his excruciating cries of 15:34 and 15:37. In Moloney's interpretation of the crucifixion this utter abandonment stands in sharp contrast against his taunting enemies, who urge him to do something: "save yourself" and "come down from that cross." It is in full, trusting powerlessness before the Father that the disciple comes into his own.
One would think that by the time of Jesus' burial the point has been made, but Mark has one more arrow in his quiver, saved for Easter Sunday itself. If Moloney's contention that this Gospel does end at 16:8 is correct, a point maintained by many scholars, then the last line of the Gospel is a story of ultimate abandonment; the women, his last remnant of discipleship, flee in confusion and disregard their instructions to seek out the disciples in Galilee. Point, game, match.
As seen through Moloney's analysis Mark's Gospel is a remarkable theological work, and Moloney's [and others'] reassessment of Markan purposes is truly a generational breakthrough. Like many breakthroughs, however, it is hard to say exactly what we have in hand. There is here the risk of repeating Columbus's mistake and declaring that indeed, we have reached the Indies. In truth Moloney's own assessment has an air of mystery which hangs open-ended like the conclusion of the Gospel itself. It can safely be said that indeed Mark is of the Gospel genre, a biography built around Peter's kerygmatic sermon of Easter. Likewise, the traditional Christological interpretations appear reasonably safe in Moloney's scheme of things, though no one will confuse Moloney with Karl Barth and the latter's emphasis upon the Kingdom of God.
But beyond this, what do we have? In my view Moloney has recast Mark's Gospel as a magnificent morality play. Mark, in his view of things, had no intention of introducing the historical Jesus of Nazareth, on the grounds that the audience already knew Jesus and his outcome. Rather, this is an interpretation of his followers, notably the Twelve. With a large proportion of this relatively brief Gospel devoted to things apocalyptic--notably the fall of Jerusalem--there is a strong element of prophetic morality here. Call it a unique and marvelous catechetical outreach, if you will, and catch your breath at the extremity of demand of discipleship. I used to marvel at Mark's achievement; now, to be frank, it scares me like the devil.