Who Wrote Mark? – The Mark of a Good Editor
Have you ever seen a film editor do his or her job? This person wades through countless takes in order to find the perfect angle for a shot, the right frame for a character’s expression, the best delivery of relevant dialogue, all in order to assemble the best scene possible, the one that expresses what is needed to convey that part of the narrative. Most movie goers probably pay this process no mind—they screen the film as they shot it, right? This reaction is understandable, given that most of us have no idea just how much content editors must sift through in order to help the director realize his or her vision.
A good editor makes the job look easy; a weak editor causes you to see the seams, the rough cuts. This looks sloppy, a casual movie goer might remark after viewing inferior or lazy work. But the work of a bad editor can teach you a lot about film: Put against a good film, you can see how this type of work can and should be handled.
One of Helms’ main arguments about The Gospel of Mark: Mark’s author was a bad, sloppy editor.
Helms opens his exploration of the Gospel authorship by first examining Mark. It’s a logical choice because of Helms’ initial claim: Mark is used as the source for both Matthew and Luke. I’d understood these four accounts to stand on their own, and although I realized that similar content is conveyed, I read them as four eye witness accounts of the same story. So reading that one formed the basis of two others is interesting. He takes his point a step further: both Matthew and Luke are “corrected” versions of Mark.
But how well does he support this argument in his book’s first two chapters? Helms first establishes the errors in chronology (5) and geography (6) in Mark in order to establish when it was written—about 70 AD—and where—just outside Palestine. The timing is important, for Mark would have either not been born during Jesus’ time or far too young to understand anything. The location is also important, for it determines with which locales the author would have been familiar.
Given this, Mark’s accounts about the life of Jesus must be based on research, not his own eyewitness version or an account of Peter’s memories. This establishes that he had to have relied on the accounts of others. So why is this a problem? He used weak sources and did not piece them together all that well.
For example, Helms notices that Mark misquotes the Old Testament (“defraud” is not in the original Commandments (10)) and he actually misunderstood some of his sources (13). Also important:
Not Peter, but Christian Legend, was Mark’s source about John the Baptist. Mark says, “In the prophet Isaiah it stands written,” and then quotes a garbled blending of Exodus 23:20 and Malachi. Oral tradition does this kind of blending, not Peter’s memory. (2)
Mark also mishandles other Old Testament “facts”: He refers to the high priest Abiathar (Mark 2:25-26), when Abiathar was the son to the high priest at the time, Ahimelech (1 Sam. 21:1-6) (10-11).
He details several such instances, and each makes a fairly convincing case for the holes in Mark’s work.
So does this mean we should discount this Gospel? You would think that Helms would use all of his findings to suggest tossing The Gospel of Mark. But he doesn’t. Rather, the tenor of his scholarship seems to call for an enlightened understanding of this Gospel. By understanding what it’s based on, the reader can appreciate what is there, not trust it merely because it’s one of the four canonized Gospels. If nothing else, it stands as a good example of what happens when someone gets ahold of multiple sources, puts too much faith in what they contain, and then bases writing on those sources. Basically: a sloppy editing job.
A good editor vets the information he or she assembles.
But ultimately, it’s the audience’s job to decide what to do with it, and maybe that’s Helms’ main point. Thankfully, there are other examples of Gospels who demonstrate how to correct Mark’s mistakes—more on that in a bit. In the meantime, I can’t help wonder, as I write this post, how good of a job I am doing at vetting the information in Helms’ book. When you trust what you read, how much should you question?
Next up: Helms examines Mark’s “apocalyptic mind” in his second chapter.