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Why Mark’s Gospel Makes Perfect Sense as an Ancient Biography

During my investigation of Christianity, there were some troubling aspects of the gospels that I needed to resolve. In particular, I wanted to better understand the kind of literary genre they represented.

“When I go to the bookstore and look in the biography section, I don’t see the same kind of writing that I see in the gospels,” I said. “When somebody writes a biography these days, they thoroughly delve into the person’s life. But look at Mark—he doesn’t talk about the birth of Jesus or really anything through Jesus’ early adult years. Instead he focuses on a three-year period and spends half his gospel on the events leading up to and culminating in Jesus’ last week. How do you explain that?”

Craig Blomberg held up a couple of fingers. “There are two reasons,” he replied. “One is literary and the other is theological.

Blomberg is widely considered one of the country’s foremost authorities on the biographies of Jesus, which are called the four gospels. He received his doctorate in New Testament from Aberdeen University in Scotland, later serving as a senior research fellow for Tyndale House at Cambridge University in England, where he was part of an elite group of international scholars that produced a series of acclaimed works on Jesus. He is currently a professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary.

“The literary reason is that basically, this is how people wrote biographies in the ancient world,” he continued. “They did not have the sense, as we do today, that it was important to give equal proportion to all periods of an individual’s life or that it was necessary to tell the story in strictly chronological order or even to quote people verbatim, as long as the essence of what they said was preserved. Ancient Greek and Hebrew didn’t even have a symbol for quotation marks.

“The only purpose for which they thought history was worth recording was because there were some lessons to be learned from the characters described. Therefore, the biographer wanted to dwell at length on those portions of the person’s life that were exemplary, that were illustrative, that could help other people, that gave meaning to a period of history.”

“And what’s the theological reason?” I asked.

“It flows out of the point I just made. Christians believe that as wonderful as Jesus’ life and teachings and miracles were, they were meaningless if it were not historically factual that Christ died and was raised from the dead and that this provided atonement, or forgiveness, of the sins of humanity.

“So Mark in particular, as the writer of probably the earliest gospel, devotes roughly half his narrative to the events leading up to and including one week’s period of time and culminating in Christ’s death and resurrection.

“Given the significance of the crucifixion,” he concluded, “this makes perfect sense in ancient literature.”

 
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