One of the supreme ironies of biblical scholarship is that it fails to recognize the literary genius of the story called the Gospel of Mark, because it presumes the writing is something that it is not. For Christians, the “Gospels” must be historical works – biographies.
The Gospel of Mark was long the least appreciated of the Gospels. It appears that the Gospel of Matthew was the first well know Gospel story. Matthew is actually a recasting of the Gospel of Mark, and what Matthew does is it takes the story from Mark and makes it appear more like a biography, more like “real history”. The Gospel of Luke does the same thing. Both Matthew and Luke read much more like “historical accounts”.
So it seems that the historical nature of the other Gospels colored how people interpreted Mark as well. Believing that Mark was supposed to be a “true historical account” caused readers with that expectation to view Mark as a “poorly written” biography that “get’s many things wrong”. The geography of Mark is all messed up, the main characters in Mark are portrayed poorly, there aren’t any real lessons in Mark, scenes like the cursing of the fig tree seem unlikely and nonsensical, and many details seem to be left out. From the perspective of a “historical account”, this story seems to be a real mess.
But the reality is that Mark isn’t a work of history; it’s not a biography, it’s an entirely fictional story and a work of literary genius. Matthew and Luke aren’t the “real and accurate accounts”, with Mark being a poor parallel – Mark is the real story, from which everyone else copied.
But recognizing the literary genius of Mark means recognizing that Mark is fictional, and thus Christians are incapable of actually recognizing Mark for what it really is. It’s as if someone started a religion based on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, and took his account of Middle Earth as the real literal early history of the world. It’s as if they took Tolkien’s stories as actual factual accounts and thus failed to recognize the real symbolism and creativity in them. Followers of such a religion would be incapable of recognizing Tolkien as a creative genius because that would mean that he wasn’t an accurate chronicler of real events.
That’s the situation Christians are in with the Gospel of Mark. Christianity is a religion founded on a fictional story and Christians can’t recognize the literary genius of the writer of the story they worship, because to do so would be to recognize that the figure they are worshiping is a fictional character, not a real god. This is a shame, because this story that Christians call the Gospel of Mark is actually one of the most ingeniously written stories ever composed, which has a lot to do with why a religion ended up forming around it.
The writer of the story incorporated so many layers of meaning and symbolism into the story, along with so many puzzles and mysteries, that the story mesmerized its audience. It was a story unlike anything anyone had read before, not in its basic outline, but in the tantalizing clues that hinted as deeper secrets. Many of the mysteries and puzzles got corrupted when they were inartfully copied by the writers of the other Gospels, but enough of them shone through to excite readers even through the other Gospels.
The way that the Gospel of Mark was written literally must have required a true genius to compose. The writer must have been deeply familiar with a wide body of works, including the works of the Jewish scriptures, the letters of Paul and likely other apocalyptic Jewish works and Greek classics. The writer was then able to take references to so many other works and weave all of these references together into a coherent multi-layered narrative. The story is compelling on its own with a superficial reading, but the story actually has two layers, and if you follow all of the other literary references made in the story you can see that there is a second narrative, or rather that the superficial narrative is augmented by the “hidden narrative”.
Making all of this work, especially at a time when the only way to really construct such complexities would be in your mind, is mind-blowing. Today it would be far easier with the ability to have many references on a computer to draw from, but whoever wrote this story must have memorized many writings and also had copies of them so that he could quote from them directly as well. But the writer would still had to have memorized them in order to be able to build the overall plot and have ideas about what references he wanted to use where.
Just thinking about how this story had to have been constructed is awe inspiring. Yet, Christians cannot recognize the genius of this story because doing so is to acknowledge its fictionality. I think the story called the Gospel of Mark (which really needs to be re-named to something else), should be recognized as one of the great master works of ancient literature and studied far more broadly in a secular context. The story truly is a masterpiece and deserves appreciation on par with the works of Homer, Virgil, Ovid, etc.
To be sure there were a handful of people worshiping “Jesus” prior to the writing of this story, but it is this story that really founded the religion. It is easy to see how this story and its derivatives inspired a religion, but its time to recognize the creative genius of the author instead of worshiping the fictional protagonist.