With Year B we come to the Gospel of St Mark. This poses a challenge to my Sunday practice of providing a commentary from the Church Fathers; none of them wrote a commentary on his Gospel. I can find material from Chrysostom, Origen, Augustine and St Cyril of Alexandra (my usual suspects, so to say), but they all derive from commentaries by them on the other Gospels; SS. Jerome and Bede both have homilies, as does Dionysius, although I am less familiar with the latter than I am the first two, so do not be suprised if there is a very great deal of Bede in the coming year.
Papias, writing in the early second century, tells us that he had from the Apostle John this:
Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered. It was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings or deeds of Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied Him. But afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who accommodated his instructions to the necessities [of his hearers], but with no intention of giving a regular narrative of the Lord’s sayings. Wherefore Mark made no mistake in thus writing some things as he remembered them. For of one thing he took especial care, not to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictitious into the statements.
This is as close to an eye-witness account as we could want; someone who knew St John and St Phillip testified to the origin of Mark’s work. Clement of Alexandria, who wrote a few dacades later, that is the mid-second century, confirms this, and adds that Mark ended up in Alexandria, a tradition received and sustained by the Coptic Church, whose See of that of St Mark. Irenaeus also taught that Mark was the interpreter and follower of St Peter, although as he had read Papias, that does not, perhaps, count as an independent tradition. Origen, writing toward the end of the second century, certainly believed that Mark’s Gospel was substantially that of St Peter, and identified the Evangelist with ‘Marcus my son’, mentioned in the first epistle of Peter. The united tradition of the early Church is that whilst not himself an Apostle, Mark was the companion of St Peter and his writing accurately records some of the content of Peter’s preaching.
The first great Church historian, Eusebius of Caesarea (c.263-c.339), who had access to the best library in Palestine, then one of the centres of Christian learning, noted as proofs of its accuracy the fact that Mark recorded many ‘notorious slanders against themselves [the Apostles] to unforgetting ages’; a work of fiction, he thought, would have left out all the unflattering references to the slow-wittedness of the chief followers of Jesus; a text received from the hands of Mark, the amanuensis of Peter, could not be altered, and had to be taken, ‘warts and all’. St Jerome inherited a tradition whereby Peter himself had approved of Mark’s writing, and regarded it as essentially the Gospel of Peter.
We find text from all part of the Christian world quoting Mark from the earliest times, which seems to confirm the view that it is the earliest of the Gospels, something attested to by its composition, which lacks the dense textuality of Luke and Matthew; there are, however, scholars who would maintain that there is a dependance on Matthew. Ironically, the Commentator on this Gospel is certainly dependant upon Matthew, Luke and John and their commentators.
Mark’s Gospel is a powerful, first-hand call to repentance. As Rowan Williams has put it so well:
you can’t just take material about the kingdom of God and the coming judgement from Mark – the material usually referred to as ‘apocalyptic’ – and expect it to stay the same.
To remove the apocalyptic is to remove the Gospel message – the kingdom is at hand, and we must be prepared.