Reading Time: 5 minutes

Let’s remember what we’re not dealing with, and what we are dealing with, in a gospel writer. Goodbye journalist, biographer, historian. Hello mythologist and fabulist.

Mythologists and fabulists have been the most successful storytellers in the history of writing. Their books have been on best seller lists for thousands of years. Some of their writings have steered the course of history. I invite you to read a part of one of those successful stories—the first thousand words that anyone ever wrote about the life of Jesus, the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark, the first gospel ever written, some 40 years after Jesus died. (Yes, Paul wrote his letters earlier than Mark, but scholars have long noted that Paul showed little interest in the biography of Jesus. It was the gospels that initiated stories of Jesus’ life. And Mark was the first to do it.) Mark was not an eyewitness to the events he related. He wasn’t a student of Jesus. Mark likely did not know Jesus. He was not a journalist, a biographer, or a historian. Mark was a mythologist and a fabulist. There may be a patina of the historical personage of Jesus brushed onto Mark’s story, but that patina is overlaid with trowels of fiction. Even hard-bitten atheists should be curious to read the first thousand words ever written about the life of Jesus, given that billions more have been written about Jesus since then. To make the effort more alluring, I offer my own translation in 21st-century American English. Here then is my fresh rendering of the Gospel of Mark, chapter one, which, as it happens, is about 1000 words: The good news has already started about Jesus, who is none other than the Liberator, and also God’s only child. God once said to his only child through the ancient poet Isaiah:
Before leaving with my memorandum, I send herald to declare, Cracked voice in a wasteland, Get ready for me there!
That herald, a man named John, showed up in the very wasteland Isaiah spoke of. And John made people earnestly regret their moral flaws to the point of imploring him to splash them in the Jordan River to indicate their desire to be washed clean of those failings. People from Jerusalem, and even far outside of Jerusalem, came to hear preacher John at the river, and afterwards they all felt sincerely remorseful about their failings and they all consented to be splashed with river water by John. This John, not unlike Elijah of old, was all the while eating insects and uncultivated honey and wearing a camel pelt with a rawhide sash. John kept saying over and over: ‘There is someone who is better at this than I am, and he will turn up very soon. I am not even worthy to bend down to tie the laces of his shoe. I splash you with water. He’ll splash you with God’s holy spittle.’ At that very moment Jesus arrived from up north, having walked all the way from Nazareth in Galilee, and John splashed Jesus in the river. After the water dripped from his eyes, Jesus saw the sky rip open and God’s holy exhalation drop down on him like a plummeting bird. Just then a voice out of the atmosphere said to Jesus, ‘You are my darling child and I delight in you.’ Without delay God’s holy exhalation forced Jesus further out into the wasteland to be alone for forty days, where fierce creatures would scare him, Satan entice him, and angels tend to him tenderly. When John was jailed, Jesus returned to Galilee, broadcasting God’s good report with the words, ‘This is it! God is very close! Feel sorry for your failings and accept forgiveness as the good news it is!’ One day, near the banks of Galilee Lake, Jesus saw two young men hurling a fishnet into the water. They were the brothers Simon and Andrew, fishermen both. Jesus cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled at them, ‘Come with me and I’ll teach you how to fish for human beings!’  The brothers dropped their net on the spot and went with Jesus. A little further along Jesus saw two other brothers, the sons of Zebedee, James and John by name. They were sitting in a boat with their father, and they were all tying knots in ripped fishnets. Jesus called the boys over, and they left Zebedee sitting right there in the dinghy along with a few hired hands. Then the five of them, Simon, Andrew, James, John, and Jesus, went to the seaside town of Capernaum. And on a Saturday Jesus walked into the synagogue and started educating the people. The people were all flabbergasted at his teaching ability, because he spoke and gestured with a confident air of authority, which the people were not at all used to in their regular teachers. Only a moment later, a demon-possessed man in the synagogue screamed out, ‘What are you going to do, Jesus from Nazareth, annihilate me? I know that you’re the sacred one from God.’ Jesus sharply scolded the demon, saying, ‘Shut up and get out!’ The demon shrieked and violently shook the body of the possessed man, but it left just the same. The people in the synagogue were shocked all the more and asked, ‘What? Authoritative teaching and the demons obey him?’ And this was the moment Jesus began to be famous in Galilee. Right after leaving the synagogue, the five of them went over to Simon’s house where Simon’s mother-in-law was laid out with a fever. Somebody told Jesus this and he clutched her hand and stood her upright and the fever left her right then and there. Then she began to get the boys whatever they needed. That very evening, the general public started bringing sick and demon-possessed people to Jesus, and the entire citizenry of the town was jam-packed around Simon’s house. Jesus healed many sick people that night and cast out many demons too, though he would not let the demons utter a word that might identify him to the crowd. In the morning, before even a hint of daylight was in the sky, Jesus left the house and found an isolated place to pray. Simon, Andrew, James, and John hunted Jesus down and said to him, ‘Already the people are looking for you.’ Jesus said, ‘Let’s go to another town, and to another one after that, and then to another. I want to preach in other places too. That’s really why I left the house so early.’ So Jesus walked all over Galilee, preaching his message in synagogues and expelling demons. One time a leper knelt in front of Jesus and begged Jesus to cure him, saying, ‘If you want to, you can heal me.’ Jesus was visibly moved by the request and extended his hand to touch the leper, saying, ‘I do want to. Heal!’ Not a second later the leprosy was gone. Jesus had stern words for the cured leper: ‘Don’t tell a soul I did this to you. Simply go and show yourself to the priests, and for the priests’ sake, make an offering for your health, like Moses commanded. Don’t tell a soul I did this to you!’ But that cured leper couldn’t keep his mouth shut. He told everybody that Jesus healed him, and the word spread and spread, so much so that Jesus couldn’t walk into a town without being mobbed. And that’s when Jesus decided to stay out in the countryside most of the time. But people found him, wherever he went. Those are the first 1000 words ever written about the life of Jesus. And we know where the mythologist-fabulist took the story from there. Mark’s gospel was probably the only thing Mark ever wrote. He set a month aside in the late first century to scratch a black stylus on a taut piece of vellum to tell a story of Jesus. He might not have known that gospel writers Matthew and Luke would come long a decade and more later and copy Mark almost verbatim. Mark couldn’t imagine his writing would mold a civilization and still be in print millennia later. But he did mold a civilization. And his writing is still in print and read by someone somewhere every day. Isn’t that what we’d call a successful writer? Isn’t that what we’d call a successful story?

J. H. McKenna (Ph.D.) has taught the history of religius ideas since 1992 at various colleges and since 1999 at the University of California, where he has won teaching awards. He has published in academic...

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