The Gospel is more than a biography; it is salvation history

Father John A. Kiley

Now that the Church’s liturgy is back in Ordinary (that is, numbered) Time, the Gospel account according to St. Mark will be proclaimed from Catholic pulpits until Advent. St. Mark’s Gospel account is considerably shorter than the other three evangelists’ writings, and, of his sixteen chapters, six are devoted to the Passion Week, the entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to the Resurrection on Easter Sunday. This considerable attention to the saga of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection accords with the scholarly opinion that the Gospel as originally preached consisted almost entirely of the events of Holy Week.
Christ’s parables and miracles were gradually added to the core narrative of Christ’s saving work as practical examples of what the Christian life would entail. Throughout the nine chapters of Christ’s public life and the six chapters of his final days, the hand of St. Peter, or better, the memory of St. Peter is generally thought to be the guiding mechanism for St. Mark’s life of Christ. St. Mark’s Gospel account is in great measure an eye-witness record of Christ’s saving activities.
In last week’s Gospel passage of the calming of the storm at sea, the small detail that Jesus was “in the stern, asleep on a cushion” is certainly a firsthand observation, surely recalled by someone who personally witnessed the event. And this week, the lengthy Gospel passage on the cure of the afflicted woman and the healing of the little girl certainly relates eye witness recollections as well. For example, Jesus completes the miracle and then suggests “…that she should be given something to eat.” Jesus’ kindness is a small detail but quite realistic and understandably remembered by someone standing nearby.
St. Mark especially often records the very Aramaic words that Jesus spoke. Jesus said to Jairus’ daughter, “Talitha koum” meaning “little girl, arise!” To the deaf man with the speech impediment Jesus said, “Ephphatha!,” that is, “Be opened!” During the agony at Gethsemane, Jesus prayed, “Abba,” meaning “Father.” And on the Cross, the Savior cried out, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” translated as “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” These recollections of Jesus’ actual words are certainly first hand.
Affirming the notion of eye witness remembrances, St. Mark reports more personal names than do St. Matthew and St. Luke. Along with St. Matthew, the women at the cross and tomb are recalled by name – Mary Magdalene and Salome. St. Luke writes generically of “women.” Simon of Cyrene along with his sons Alexander and Rufus are all recalled by name. Ss. Matthew and Luke only mention Simon. Three individuals involved in healings are recalled by name: Jairus whose daughter is healed in this Sunday’s account; Simon the Leper and the former blind man, Bartimaeus. Only St. Mark mentions all three by name.
Passion Father Ron Will notes that not only by the recollection of Christ’s words and deeds but, more effectively, by the tender memory of Jesus’ personal emotions, the sense of an eyewitness account is most powerfully conveyed in St. Mark’s accounting. St. Mark records that Jesus “sighed deeply” in his spirit…was “moved with compassion”…“marveled at unbelief”…was moved with “righteous anger”…and, uniquely to Mark, looked at the rich young man “with love”…experienced “hunger” pangs…and grew “tired” and wanted to rest.
Scripture scholars wisely know that the Gospel accounts are not the inventive fruit of later pious imaginations or the products of historical fiction. The honest reader has to admit that there is much more than a kernel of accuracy in these narratives of Jesus’ earthly life. The Gospel accounts are not the myths and fables of later Christian generations. Indeed the Gospel writers took great pains to include eyewitness testimony from those who followed Jesus “from the beginning,” the very criterion used to elect Matthias after Judas’ defection.
Students of Scripture know that one of the reasons that the Gospels were written was to preserve eyewitness testimony before the eyewitnesses themselves died out. Eyewitness participants in the public life of Jesus, like St. Peter and his student St. Mark, valued Christ’s unique teachings and activities. They retained and recounted such memories conscientiously and thoroughly. Still the Good News is even more than biography; it was and is salvation history.