The Professor lectures about the Gospel of Mark and he does so by ignoring Matthew, Luke, and John. He lectures as though those other books did not exist. It is perfectly harebrained to do it this way, but that is how he does it. He is a critical thinker and must not allow cross-contamination.
He notes that Mark stresses Jesus’ authority. He notes of chapter 1 and verse 16: “While walking alongside the Sea of Galillee, he saw Simon and Simon’s brother Andrew casting their nets into the sea, for they were fishermen. So Jesus said to them: “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” And at once they abandoned their nets and followed him.” Jesus has authority, he says. “They’ve never laid eyes on him before.” He calls, and they drop everything to follow him.
Well, if you didn’t hamstring yourself with your scholarship, Mr. Professor, you wouldn’t come to such a ridiculous conclusion. I’ll know I’ve arrived as a Witness when I command the householder, “Come!” and he without question follows me to the Kingdom Hall, not even pausing to shut off the lawn mower. “Must...follow....Tom,” he will say as he stumbles by his bewildered wife and abandoned kids. Of course they’ve seen him before—he’s now giving them opportunity to join him in an intensive ministry. If you would read the other Gospels that somehow you think contaminate your research you would know that.
Jesus enters the synagogue to teach. This is only verse 21 of the first chapter, so indeed Mark does start off with a bang. He blows them away in the synagogue—they are “astounded at his way of teaching, for he was teaching them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” He casts out demons, heals plenty of the sick, including even Simon’s mother-in-law, yet he tells those demons—his disciples, too—to keep quiet about his identity—‘Zip it,’ he says. ‘Keep quiet that he is the Christ? Why would he want them to do that?’ interjects the Professor, as though uncovering proof that Jesus is crazy. Well, it may be for the same reason that Bob Dylan checks into the hotel under an assumed name—so he can stay unmolested until he performs in concert before thousands.
The ploy doesn’t do Jesus any good, though. The Professor doesn’t mention it, but one healed leper pays no attention to his orders and blabs everywhere that he’s been healed—it creates such a sensation that “Jesus was no longer able to enter openly into a city, but he stayed outside in isolated places.” He messed up the Lord! They keep coming to him from all sides, we read. Jesus later did try to rest up, but it was in vain, for Simon “hunted him down”—“all are looking for you,” he says. You think it’s easy being the Christ? It’s not! All this in the first chapter.
Does the Professor remark on something that more appreciative persons never fail to note?—that when the leper observes, “Lord, if you just want to, you can make me clean” Jesus says, “I want to? Does he reflect upon that? Nope. He critically looks at the fabric of the garment, the stitching of the garment, even the lint of the garment, and never seems to realize that you can wear the garment to stay warm.
As though the people of chapter 1 do not exist, the Professor goes on to consider other people—people who give Jesus a hard time. His family thinks he’s gone out of his mind. (3:21) Mark, the Professor points out, does not contain the virgin birth accounts of Matthew and Luke, so he assumes that this gospel writer knows nothing about it. Well, how do you know that he was born at all, if you’re going to be so insistent that the story must all be in one place!? Does this inane kind of scholarship hold for any other historical figure—Alexander the Great, for instance, or Cleopatra?
Jesus teaches in his home town, says the Professor, and his neighbors who watched him grow up can’t get their heads around just who he thinks he is. The lecturer can’t get over this, but in fact it is a classic quirk of how anybody gets more respect from people who do not remember what a cute little baby he used to be—and when the jokester Ernie moved to another congregation, we sent him off at his going-away party with a cake to that effect—“A prophet is not without honor except in his home territory,” said the frosting. I mean, we sure found him to be a trip; maybe they could put up with him.
The leaders of his own people, the Jews, charge that he “expels demons by means of the ruler of the demons,” so they, along with his family and his neighbors, don’t know Jesus’ true identity, either. The Professor misses entirely the baseness of men when their position is threatened—these leaders are just well-meaning sincere guys to him who really are trying to understand just what is going on. And you know that something is happening but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Scribe?
On and on the Professor goes, examining the minutia of the automobile and never realizing that you can climb in it and drive to to Boise, Idaho—I mention Boise, not for any reason unto itself but because for a time I played with the idea of a character named Ida Ho, who either cleaned up her act to become a Witness, or fell from grace away from it, but I finally rejected the idea as too risqué for my people—it doesn’t take much to be too risqué for them—they take to heart the counsel to “let sexual immorality and every sort of uncleanness or greediness not even be mentioned among you, just as is proper for holy people; neither shameful conduct nor foolish talking nor obscene jesting.” Doesn’t bother the Professor, though—he mentions how he tells his undergrad students that Mark is called the Passion Gospel and by that he does not mean the kind of passion that goes on in the dorms on Friday night! Yes, yes, I get it—yuk yuk—but you almost wonder which passion he considers the most important as he strips away all that is meaningful about the Gospel for students who have paid good money for their college education, likely imagining that they will pick up something here that will help them in their quest for spirituality!
‘Oh, come on! Tom—you’re just jealous that he is a professor and you’re not.’ Well—maybe there is a little something to that—college professorship is one of the last occupations that the bean-counters have not yet ruined—but it doesn’t help to learn that Bart Ehrman the Professor, the Great Courses lecturer, was once a evangelical Christian who went apostate in their eyes and is now cashing in by putting a skeptical spin on what he once practiced because that is what the university crowd eats up. This—even given in my eyes—that the evangelicals naturally give birth to this kind of thing because most church teachings are not found in the Bible—it is the attempt to read them in that causes people to throw up their hands in despair of ever understanding the book—or do what the Professor does—milk it for incidentals to present at the university while he ignores the meaning.
He makes a few other quips, trying to make me mad. Explaining how messiah and christ mean the same thing and how they are titles and not surnames, he tells how he must teach his students that Jesus Christ is not the son of Joseph Christ and Mary Christ because they think that he is. He might as well let the impression stand, for he teaches them nothing more useful for building faith, which is the entire purpose of the Gospel. He marvels at that purpose, as though it is a waste of Mark’s talents—“the writer doesn’t claim to be writing an historically accurate biography in the modern sense, but an account of Jesus that reveals how his life and death brings ‘good news‘ to those willing to receive it.” If only Mark had landed a gig at the university so he could focus on stuff that didn’t matter!
Nobody knows who Jesus is, expounds the Professor—not his family, not his neighbors, not the religious leaders, not even his disciples, (6:51-52, 8:21) despite their instantly dropping everything to follow him they have no idea who he is. Even Jesus doesn’t seem to know who he is at the end, says the Professor, for he cries “My God, my God—why have you forsaken me?” Only half-way through the Book of Mark do some begin to get a clue as to his identity, starting with Peter (“You are the Christ”) but even then they are dense as all get-out.
“At almost the midway point of the Gospel comes the most interesting [to him] miracle in the entire narrative; an account of a man who is blind and who gradually regains his sight [8:22-26]. “[He] take[s] this as a symbolic expression of what will happen to the disciples, who gradually come to see who Jesus really is.” The Professor builds his theory off the fact that this is the only recorded miracle that is not instantaneous—it happens in stages. Now, this idea is not stupid—I kind of like it—but it is just an interpretation. This is why these doctor-of-divinity types are so annoying, trashing matters of real substance to spin their own speculative notions as though fact! It reminds me of the college course I took once because you had to have a certain number of electives; it, too, was a course on the Gospels, taught by a retired Baptist minister who commented on how back in his seminary days everyone called John the Apostle to the Idiots for the simple grammar he employed! The reason that the crowds were “astounded” with Jesus’ teachings is that he did NOT spin his own air-headed pontifications—he did NOT do what they were so used to.
If you write a report on William the Conquerer, do you take one source and one source only? If it is not in source A but it is in source B, do you assume that A and B would fight over it? What about this line from John 21:25: “There are also, in fact, many other things that Jesus did, which if ever they were written in full detail, I suppose the world itself could not contain the scrolls written.” You could write four Gospels never touching on the same fact, and this yo-yo would think it is four different people!
The Professor does give a reason for his critical approach of taking each gospel independent of the others. It is not crazy, however it does involve multiple assumptions, each one of which he treats as fact. ‘We can assume this, we can assume that’—he says of foundational points in a prior lecture. Essentially, (he doesn’t say it in these words) it is that early Christians were working-class, and you know how stupid they are—they don’t write books and teach in the university like he does. He even refers to the children’s game of whispering a story successively in each other’s ear to see how it changes over time, and when they did it to me in seventh grade, the story had even been purposefully changed before it reached my ears—I knew that because it consisted of mocking the teacher who started the ball rolling—and I would have felt silly passing that along so I changed it again! Besides, Mark was written decades after the events covered and it would be (at the time of lecture) ‘like recalling the details of the Johnson Presidential campaign,’ as though accompanying Christ would be of no more lasting significance to his disciples than working to elect a president!
I’m being excessively hard on this fellow and I am almost ashamed of myself. He is doing no more than what he said he would do—lecturing without regard to faith but only with regard to critical thinking. If he was doing it with any other author from Homer to Hawthorne, I would commend him. It is just that he is choosing to treat diamonds as salt that gets under my skin. It is far worse than when the Church of Christ fellow invited me into his home and I could see in a second that he truly was a student of the Bible—an instantly likable man of good humor, hospitality, no pretentiousness whatsoever—a man with multiple translations, and as we zeroed in on passage in Corinthians and he saw that I meant to read it aloud, he said in a minor panic: “No, no, let me read it—you’ll mess it up!” a retort that made both of us chuckle. Still, he was extracting reasons for faith out of the book, even if I did think he had some things backwards—he wasn’t stripping it of faith to extract the extraneous that he knew the university crowd would eat up.
Here is the Professor’s quip when speaking of Pax Romana: “I always tell my students that if there is a perfectly good English term for a concept, you are better off using the Latin term so everyone will know you’ve been to university.” It is just a quip but in that quip lies all the pretensions of our ridiculous times. “How can you believe, when you are accepting glory from one another and you are not seeking the glory that is from the only God?” says Jesus. (John 5:44)