When I was young, I had a passing interest in our family tree. My mom used to tell us stories about our family, her side of the family, anyway. I used to listen to them. I enjoyed them. Who isn’t interested in their family? She would tell the stories, but I never made any real attempt to remember them. I mean, she was always there. Why remember them? But later on, when I got older, I wanted to tell those same stories to my wife and to my kids. I remembered some parts, but some parts of the stories I had forgotten. And I knew I wasn’t getting the whole thing right. So from time to time, when I saw my mom, I would ask her to tell me the stories again. But she was older now. She didn’t remember the stores so well herself.
On top of everything else, my uncle also told those stories. He even wrote them down in a book when he set about to discover our family tree. But my mom said that a lot of what was in that book was wrong. When my sister finally decided to research the family tree, using research methods she had learned earning her doctorate, she discovered that they were both wrong, although she was surprised to learn that my mother was a lot closer to the facts than my uncle was. And who knows? Maybe my mom’s oral tradition is actually closer to the truth than some of the facts contained in the local history books in Arizona. Those books don’t say my great great grandmother used to walk around with a little pouch of marijuana attached to her belt. That’s what my mom says, but maybe she made that up because she thought that it made for a good story and now, after all these years, she has come to believe her own fiction. It’s a cool story either way.
So I have a pretty good idea about the history of my mother’s family. I certainly have the basic facts of the story. I could not say with any certainty as to whether or not they were good people or not, whether they were courageous or cowardly, whether they were saints or sinners. But I have no reason to doubt the stories my mother used to tell me, what I remember of them. She is certainly giving me the point of view of my grandmother and great grandmother, both of whom got their stories from their parents and grandparents. I have no doubt my mother inserted a portion of her own personal opinions into the stories. Republicans and Democrats tell very different stories of the Nixon administration, after all.
So when we consider the gospels, the accounts of the ministry of Jesus, the man called the Christ, we can be sure that we are faced with much the same problem. The people who were followers of Jesus were expecting him to come back down from heaven fairly soon, before the end of that generation. So they felt no pressing need to write down his story. He was coming back soon. It wasn’t for quite a little, after all twelve of his original students had been killed, and many churches of the new sect had been established that early church leaders decided that somebody needed to put ink to papyrus and get the story down. There were already several variants of the story circulating around by means of oral tradition. There needed to be some sort of definitive story. So gospels begin to appear.
Scholars argue about which of the four gospels included in the official canon is the oldest. Some claim it to be Matthew. That was the first idea. That’s why it comes first in the collection of books called The New Testament. Scholars today, however, for the most part, all agree that Mark is the oldest and that Matthew and Luke borrow extensively from it. Quite a few scholars argue that there was an original, older document from which all three gospels borrow called the Q document (from the German word for source. Most significant theology comes from Germany. They’re such anal people, aren’t they?)
There are two main thoughts in placing a date to the writing of the gospel of Mark. Some claim that it had to be written after 70 CE, when the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. This is because Mark has Jesus predicting that the temple in Jerusalem would one day be destroyed. So, since Jesus can’t see the future, and since the author of Mark can’t see the future either, the book must have been written after the temple was destroyed. To believe that the book was written before the temple was destroyed would be to suggest that Jesus WAS able to predict the future, or at least the author of Mark was.
The problem with the after 70 date is that more than one early church leader mentioned the existence of the gospel in their letters as early as 68 CE, and 68 is definitely before 70. One group of scholars even claim to have a fragment (about the size of a postage stamp) of the gospel that dates to 62 CE. This evidence is not universally accepted, however. But we can be sure that the document was in wide circulation by the early 70s. So we can say that the first accounts of the ministry of Jesus were written somewhere between twenty and forty years after his departure from this early realm.
Another argument for an early origin of the gospel of Mark is that it is such a short gospel. It is much shorter than the others. Unlike Matthew and Luke, there is no mention of the childhood of Jesus, or of the Christmas story. And the oldest copies of Mark contain no resurrection stories. The original document seems to have ended with the discovery of the empty tomb. There is no mention of Jesus appearing to anybody after rising from the dead as the other gospels do. That doesn’t mean the original version didn’t have those stories. It just means the oldest copies of the gospel don’t. Copies are copies, after all. This is how The Gospel According to Mark begins:
As it is written in Isaiah the prophet:
Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you;
he will prepare your way.
A voice of one crying out in the desert:
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”
John the Baptist appeared in the desert
proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
People of the whole Judean countryside
and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem
were going out to him
and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River
as they acknowledged their sins.
John was clothed in camel’s hair,
with a leather belt around his waist.
He fed on locusts and wild honey.
And this is what he proclaimed:
“One mightier than I is coming after me.
I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals.
I have baptized you with water;
he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark, Chapter 1, verses 1-8)
As you can see, it begins with the story of John the Baptist, a guy we know for a fact did live in Judea. The historian Josephus writes about John a lot, much more than he writes about Jesus. There are still people alive in the world today who consider John the Baptist to be the long awaited messiah and have built up a church around him.
The word used here translated as repentance, unlike Matthew, is “metanoia”. It means to think about things, and to reform. So we’re not talking about repentance here in the sense of feeling “sorry” for what you’ve done, your sins, as it were. In fact, the word for sins, “hamartia”, means failures. So what is being said here is that John called on people to think about their lives, to think about their failures, and to reform themselves. That’s something most of us make at least some attempt to do every New Year’s. John is calling for people to examine their lives. That was a new concept back then. People didn’t do that. So it was a revolutionary idea. And the truth is that a lot of us don’t do that now, especially if we think we’re dong okay as it is.
Since John was important enough to be mentioned by the historian Josephus, we can be pretty sure that he must, at the least, been a very colorful sort of person. He obviously didn’t blend in with the crowd. Perhaps these stories of him have blown him up into some kind of folk hero, larger than life character, wearing camel’s hair clothing and all, but his message seems pretty clear. He was calling on people to reform their lives because someone was coming, someone important, someone who would give them new spiritual life—literally “breath”.
John was right. It was Jesus who brought us the real message of hope. John showed us what we were doing wrong, but Jesus showed us how to do it right. And when you’re in the pit, knowing you’re in a pit and how you got there is pretty important. But knowing how to get out…that’s REAL important. That’s what Jesus came to do, whether God sent him, or whether he sent himself.
And this seems like a very appropriate message to consider as we approach the Christmas season. The message of Jesus seems kind of old hat to us now. We’ve all grown up with it. We’ve all seen the movies. We’ve all seen Jesus Christ Superstar. And quite frankly, not a few of us have gotten sick to death of the message most Christian churches have been preaching. But the real message of Jesus was revolutionary. Whether or not you believe that Jesus was the Son of God, or even a holy guy, you have to admit that the world was changed forever by this simple son of a carpenter. So it seems fitting that we celebrate his coming. He brought us a message of peace, love, and of service. If we all lived according to his teachings, the world would be a pretty wonderful place to live. And for those of us who do believe in his divine nature, he brought a message of hope.
When we celebrate the Fourth of July, we are celebrating more than just the birth of our nation. We are also celebrating the idea of liberty and equality for all people, that a government could be founded on those democratic principles. And we have a helluva good celebration, too. So, considering the message of Jesus, it seems like a good thing to celebrate his coming too. Whatever you believe about him, the world is a better place for his having lived here for the short time he was here. He most likely wasn’t born any time near December 25th. And the gospel of Mark doesn’t mention his birth at all. But this is as good a time as any to celebrate his coming. John would tell us to reflect and reform our lives. Jesus would show us how to live them.
So, as we drink our eggnog and put up our “holiday” trees and hang our stockings and join in an orgy of consumerism, it is good to remember what this holiday was meant to be. We are celebrating the coming of a man who would show us how to live happy, meaningful lives. John told the people that someone was coming who would save the world. And that’s just what Jesus did. He showed us how to save the world. It’s really very simple. Love one another. Christmas is about the coming of the messiah. Wow. How much of a messiah do you want?