Despite what modern Christian historians would like to be true, the Gospel of Mark was not originally a written document. Three of the Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and John—are oral compositions that were perfected by being preached repeatedly for years before they were written down. Only one history book of the early church remains, and this is what it says. Matthew wrote his Gospel only when he was leaving home, and Mark wrote his only when he was going home, but both were perfected long before.
Why Start with Mark?
Mark is missing the greatest teachings of Jesus, but it has been overly influential because the Gospel of Mark is the easiest to memorize. Mark was widely memorized by illiterate priests for many centuries. (Paper was invented in China around the time of Jesus, but its secret recipe did not come to Europe for 1,000 years. A European book during the Dark Ages used to be as expensive as a house… and it reeked of ammonia made from fermented urine.)
Mark does not require that you speak fancy words, explain complicated ideas, remember an abstract poetic or mathematical structure, or cover more than a few verses not found in the other Gospels.
In fact, if Mark were not easy to memorize and not exciting to tell, there would be nothing to explain why the great Turkish theologian St. Irenaeus included it when he created the first complete list of the four New Testament Gospels around 180 A.D., or why the great African theologian St. Athanasius still included it when he first defined the New Testament corpus in 367 A.D. There is not one story in Mark that cannot be found in Matthew or Luke. (Just one tiny bit of a sermon, the corn parable, is only in Mark.) But if they are like novels, Mark is the blockbuster movie. Even though it is not the theological heavyweight of the Gospels, Mark packs a punch by cutting out the parts that make kids sleepy.
Image: The Preaching of John the Baptist | Bartholomeus Breenbergh, 1634.
Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.