Monday, April 13, 2009

Easter Sunday School

Yesterday's sermon focused on the ending (or lack thereof) of Mark's Gospel. The pastor compared Mark to a "choose your own adventure" story, particularly when it comes to the ending.

In Dr. McGrath's Sunday school class, we discussed this as well as another possibility, namely that the original ending of Mark's Gospel could have been lost. Papyrus manuscripts are easily damaged, and most of our ancient manuscripts from this period are significantly damaged. Although we have a great many relatively early manuscripts of the New Testament writings, including some on more durable types of "paper", it is not impossible that the earliest Gospel could have been damaged in some way.

The likelihood that the original ending was lost is increased when we consider that two different scribal traditions, as well as Matthew and Luke who used Mark as a source, felt it necessary to "improve" Mark's ending.

If one considers the different geographical locations for the resurrection appearance stories in Matthew and Luke, it seems impossible to argue for "inerrancy" in any meaningful sense of the term. But if one is asking not about inerrancy but about historicity, then a historian's approach can help us make sense of why Matthew and Luke diverge, with one having the disciples told to go to Galilee while the other has them told to remain in Jerusalem.

In 1 Corinthians 15 we find an example of the sort of tradition about resurrection appearances circulating a decade or more before the Gospel of Mark is thought to have been written. Dr. McGrath pointed out that no geographical setting is provided. And thus a plausible explanation for the divergence between Matthew and Luke is that neither had information on the setting of such appearances, and each independently turned the tradition into a narrative, locating it where it seemed to fit, with the resulting tensions when one has copies of both these Gospels.

Towards the end of the class, the Rev. Bartley brought up the question of whether a rationalistic, post-Enlightenment reading of the text is not alien to the worldview in which these writings were penned. Dr. McGrath replied that, on the one hand, he appreciates what reason and science have given to us. On the other hand, the attempt to require the text to provide certainty, or reject it if it fails to do so, is indeed at odds with these stories. Matthew's Gospel has the apostles doubting even after their "encounter" with Jesus. And so the desire for certainty is the desire for something that even the earliest Christians may not have had.


Beth said...

Dr. McGrath,
I have a question regarding Mark's gospel possibly having been partially lost. I think that I could agree if it were just a regular book instead of the inspired Word of God. I find it difficult to believe that His Word would be lost since He has promised that we would have it with us forever. We are also warned about "adding to or taking from" the scriptures. Wouldn't this be included in that? I mean, if it were so important for us to have that warning, I find it hard to believe that God would allow it to happen IF it were truly the inspired Word of God. I am not an "educated" woman, so my thoughts are just my thoughts...anyway, I'd like to read your thoughts on the matter.
Thanks! Beth

James F. McGrath said...

Thank you for an excellent comment raising an important question.

Let me begin with the warning about adding to or taking away from what is wriiten, found at the end of Revelation. First, it is important to remember that when those words were written, there was as yet no canon of Scripture, and so it applied only to the Book of Revelation itself. Perhaps also worth mentioning is how very long it was before Revelation achieved canonical status in the Eastern churches.

Be that as it may, it is clear that there has been addition and subtraction. If the original ending of Mark was ot lost, it remains true that at least two endings were added to round the story off beyond 16:8.

It is often tempting to argue from what 'we know God wouldn't do'. But the truth is the copying of the Bible down the centuries has been less than perfect. And so rather than decide in advance what the Bible must be, or how faithfully its contents must have been preserved (even in the period before they were part of such a thing as the New Testament), what I recommend is beginning with the Bible we actually have, and asking what the significance is that it does not always meet the expectations we bring to it.

I hope this answers your question - please do let me know!

Beth said...

Hmmm...something for me to think about, I guess. I think that it seems that I am pretty defensive when it comes to the accuracy of the Word of God. (It's that "baptist" in me...independant baptist...that is...)
I've always wondered about the story of Jonah when it seems like we are left "dangling" at the end of the book. I have wondered if there is more of the story that we don't hear about...but then that might be the way God wanted it to be...left untold regarding what Jonah did...did he confess his sin or did he continue to pout? I guess we'll see in heaven! Thanks for your comments!

James F. McGrath said...

Thanks for your comment, too! I'll just add one further note, since you put "accuracy" and "Jonah" side by side. One other important consideration to mention is genre. Most Christians accept that Jesus' parables were stories told to illustrate a certain spiritual point, not to give us factual information about some specific father who had two sons, or some specific man who got robbed on the Jericho road. And so it is important to ask how we would tell when a particular book or story in the Bible might be more like a parable, or a work of historical fiction intended to serve primarily as a parable-like challenge, rather than history.

To put it another way, if the story in the Book of Jonah were found in the New Testament introduced by the words, "On another occasion, Jesus told the following parable:" we'd probably still understand the book's message in much the same way, but we might not get into the same debates about its historicity. :)