From Rome, 20 years or so after the ascension of Christ, Mark set ink to paper and began to write down the stories of Jesus’ life, as told and retold by the apostles and evangelists. Relying on the conversations that he had with Peter, as well as on some already existing written and oral records of Christ’s years of ministry, Mark’s gospel holds the distinction of being the first written (… probably).
Mark leaves things out of his gospel that we would expect to see in there. It’s the shortest of the canonical gospels, and reading it leaves you with the sense that it’s more like a companion book than an exhaustive biography. For example, in the most reliable manuscripts, the resurrection account in Mark gets 8 verses, and we see only the angel announcing his resurrection to three of the women among Jesus’ disciples. Huge portions of what we would think of as essential teaching material get left out.
The church that Mark is writing to is a story-telling group. Most of the local gatherings in cities throughout the empire have direct connections to one of the apostles, and would have received their knowledge of the life and teaching of Jesus directly from the stories told by the men and women who walked with him. Mark seems to be writing his gospel as a supplement to this tradition of story-telling, as if to say, “You know the stories about Jesus and what he taught us, but here are some of the details that you may not have heard.” In particular, Mark seems to be interested in providing some of the political context for Jesus’ crucifixion.
In keeping with the character of the rest of his book, Mark’s Christmas story is brief. He doesn’t talk about the virgin birth, or Bethlehem, shepherds, or wise men. For Mark, the Advent is a much older story. His gospel is simply this, “Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came as the Messianic heir of the God’s covenant with Israel”. Here’s how he writes it:
“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:
‘Behold, I send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, saying, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his pathway straight.”’”
Setting aside the theological weight of the gospels for just a second, I am frequently struck by how good these guy were as authors, as word-smiths. Mark does two things in the opening of his gospel that are just plain good writing.
First, Mark uses a very cool turn of phrase in the first line. The closest parallel might be the famous JFK line, “Ask not what your country can do for you.” In JFK’s speech, the word “not” hangs in our ear, because it’s a swinging modifier. It might belong to “ask”, or it might belong to “what”.
In Mark’s opening, the phrase “gospel of Jesus Christ” places both the words “gospel” and “Jesus Christ” in genitive, a case in Greek that is kind of like our possessive apostrophe “s”, but not quite. So, the result is a phrase where both “gospel” and “Jesus Christ” are swinging modifiers, and the reader isn’t sure if the phrase is “This is the gospel that Jesus brings”, or “This is the gospel about Jesus.” Mark probably intends both (called a plenary genitive), something we don’t have good tools to do in English. We might read it as something like this, “This is the good news that Jesus told us about himself.”
It’s clunky in English, but in the Greek it’s elegant, it’s poetic, and it’s deeply theological. For Mark, Jesus is both the source, and the demonstration, of the new truth of God’s covenant with his people.
The second literary technique that Mark uses is this: he sets up a massive historical parallel. The angel of God prepares the way for the nation of Israel to come out of Egypt, travel under the waters of the Red Sea, through the desert, into the covenant kingdom (the Old Testament quotes). John the Baptist prepares the way for the people of Israel to, again, leave their old country behind, be baptized in the Jordan, brought through the desert, and into … and then Mark introduces Jesus. All of the weight of the Old Testament covenant language, that Mark is dredging up with his quotes, comes to rest on the appearance of Jesus in the story.
Mark’s Christmas story, his Advent, is the coming of the hero into the old, old story.