If we want to experience Mark’s Gospel in its original form and medium, we need to listen to its sounds and imagine its events. Mark was a storyteller, and his Gospel was a script for a performance—not a text for silent reading.
As students of the Bible, we have traditionally approached the text with our eyes, looking for what we can discern about its meaning in its original context and in the context of our lives today. Recent research on the media world of antiquity reveals that this way of reading became prevalent in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the ancient world, only 10–15 percent of people in urban areas and 3–5 percent of people in rural areas could read. Authors published their writings by performing them for audiences.
We also tend to read the Bible in short segments, as in the Scripture readings in worship services. We look at one story at a time. Performances of Mark’s Gospel, however, would have covered the whole story and lasted two hours or more—a relatively short performance by Graeco-Roman standards. It was not unusual for Homer’s Iliad or Virgil’s Aeneid to be told all night long. The Gospel of Mark provided a nice evening of storytelling—the ancient equivalent of seeing a movie or a play, or going to the opera. The most likely setting for such a performance was in a central room or courtyard of a house, or in a more public forum like a synagogue.
Mark is more like a musical score than a text. This means that our typical practice of studying the Gospel is like reading the manuscripts of Bach or Mozart in silence and never playing and hearing the music.
What then do we hear if we listen to Mark and study the story as performance literature? A widely held conclusion among scholars is that Mark’s Gospel was composed during the Jewish War or, more likely, in its aftermath. The war lasted from ad 66 to 73; it was the greatest disaster in the history of Israel (to that point), with more than a million Israelites killed and tens of thousands made Roman slaves. When we consider this historical context alongside the dynamics of storytelling, it becomes evident that Mark was addressing his audience as Israelites, rather than as members of Gentile Christian churches (as has often been assumed). As a storyteller, Mark was constantly provoking his audiences to make connections between their experience and the story. He sets the stage in the first six chapters, which present Jesus’ ministry to Galilean Israelites. But in 7:24–8:26, Mark shifts to the other side of the border, showing Jesus doing good for Gentiles, the enemies of Israel.
Later, the story of Jesus’ prophetic demonstration in the temple (11:15–19) is a protest of the temple’s transformation from “a house of prayer for all the nations”—that is, “all the Gentiles”—into “a den of lēstēs.” This Greek word is usually translated as “robbers.” But when heard in the context of the war, it meant “warriors,” “Zealots,” “revolutionaries.” Mark is alluding to the fall of Jerusalem in ad 70, when the temple served as the final fortress of the revolutionary “Zealot” army and was besieged and destroyed by the Romans.
When we think about Mark being performed in the aftermath of the Jewish War, for audiences made up mostly of Israelites, we can hear it more clearly as the story of a Messiah of peace, whose life, death, and resurrection reveals the power of love and sacrifice.
The Gospel of Mark sounds very different than it looks.