There are not a lot of things that almost all New Testament scholars agree on, but one thing about which there is a broad consensus is that the gospel of Mark was the first gospel to be written, probably sometime in the late 60s C.E. This is not to say that Mark's gospel represents a totally new form of literature, as has sometimes been claimed. No, Mark's gospel would have been seen as some kind of biography, following ancient rather than modern conventions about what a "life" of Jesus should look like.

It appears that several factors prompted the writing of Mark's gospel at the time when it was composed. First of all, in 64 C.E. there was a major fire in Rome, a fire that Nero blamed on the Christians. Many Christians lost their lives in the wake of Nero's crackdown. According to one Roman writer, they were set alight in the Roman arena. Another source tells us that both Peter and Paul lost their lives in this series of events. As the eyewitnesses and early witnesses to the life of Jesus and the beginnings of the Christian movement began to die off, there was a need to put the story down in writing as to how it all began.

Secondly, there was the Jewish war that began in 66 C.E. and came to a climax in 70 when the Roman imperial heir Titus sacked Jerusalem and the Temple was burned to the ground. In fact, many scholars think Mark 13:14 directly warns about this event. It must be remembered that the first generation of Christians were all Jews (including John Mark, the author of this gospel), and so for them the destruction of the Temple was the end of a world--the world of early Judaism, focused as it was on the Temple, priests, and sacrifices in the Holy City of Jerusalem.

Try and imagine what it would be like if suddenly an enemy destroyed the city of Washington, D.C., and the United States had to live under foreign occupation. Life would go on, but it would never be the same as it had been when we were autonomous and had our own capitol and way of doing things.

Thus, Mark, writing in the wake of such life-changing events in both Rome (where he likely was when he wrote this gospel) and Jerusalem, believed he was living in the end times. He believed that many of the events Jesus predicted in Mark 13 were already happening in his own day. He therefore writes a gospel for his fellow Christians, who are enduring suffering and persecution, telling them that the mark of discipleship involves taking up one's cross and going down the same road Jesus trod. His gospel could thus be called an apocalyptic reflection on the life of Jesus and the earliest disciples.

In my next column, I will talk more about the structure and nature of this earliest of gospels.

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