St. Mark has been getting the royal treatment around here recently. Last week, Fr. Rankin wrote his saint article on St. Mark, and it covered two pages. As I celebrated Mass on St. Mark’s feast day on Monday of last week, I started thinking again about our Scriptures and how blessed we are to have the Word of God handed down to us from nearly 2000 years ago. I was intrigued by a line I read in my meditation book that morning. According to St. Clement of Alexandria, a bishop who lived from 150-211, Mark wrote his gospel down “at the insistence of the Christians of Rome.” What if the Christian community had never encouraged Mark to write down his account of the Gospel? Would God have found another way to communicate the truth that Mark has given us? I honestly don’t know.
Our belief in the inspiration of the scriptures remains a great mystery of our faith. Typically, we write articles, books, or letters using our intellect and doing our best to communicate a message that needs to be passed on. So, if Mark (and all biblical authors) used their intellect and put a lot of effort into writing a short book about the life and teachings of Jesus, how can we say that God was actually the author of these books? Wouldn’t it make more sense for the Bible to be dropped out of the sky, straight from heaven? Some other religions believe that revelation occurred like this. Mormons traditionally believe that Joseph Smith discovered the Book of Mormon on golden plates buried in a hill, where the prophet Mormon had buried them around 300. Also, Muslims believe that the Quran was dictated to Muhammed verbatim in Arabic, and he repeated it to his scribes to write down.
It is a common saying in the study of our faith that “grace perfects nature.” God does not nullify or cancel who we are as human beings when he shares his divine nature with us through the sacraments. With this in mind, it actually makes sense that God would want the biblical authors to use their natural gifts as part of the process of writing scripture. Biblical books and letters were always written by a human being, but the Holy Spirit guided the thoughts and words of the authors to be exactly as God wanted them to be. The word “inspired” comes from the Latin word spiritus, which literally means “spirit”! So when I hear that the early Christians urged Mark to write the Gospel down, I can see how much the Holy Spirit was involved in the whole process. First, God made mark with significant literary talents, provided him with a literate education, made him a companion of St. Paul, St. Peter, other apostles, and the early Christians, and maybe even a companion of Jesus himself. Then, as Mark sat at a desk with some kind of parchment or animal skin, the Holy Spirit guided him to the words to say in Greek, even as Mark worked really hard to craft such a beautiful Gospel. He may or may not have not known that he was writing an Inspired work of scripture.
Because Mark wrote the Gospel using his human mind, the Church needs to undertake serious scholarly research to figure out what he intended to say throughout the Gospel. If you were to read any ancient writing (think of the Odyssey or Gilgamesh), you would most likely try to find some sort of guide through the text, such as a commentary or online lecture about the cultural significance of each book. The same is true for the Bible, which was written in Hebrew and Greek, and has been translated into other languages for us to read.
Understanding the scriptures has always been a challenge for believers, and thankfully God gave us prophets, and later, bishops of the Church as the authority to teach the meaning of Sacred Scripture. I always take comfort in the fact that Saint Peter himself – the first pope – found the writings of St. Paul hard to understand! He wrote, “In [Paul’s letters] there are some things hard to understand that the ignorant and unstable distort to their own destruction, just as they do the other scriptures” (2 Peter 3:16).
The Second Vatican Council promulgated a document on Divine Revelation entitled Dei Verbum, or the Word of God. There are several points in this document that I thought may be helpful to leave here for further reading. If you have read this far, thank you for bearing with me! I understand that not everyone is interested in some technicalities of how God’s Word is passed down to us, but I think it’s pretty cool. Here are parts of paragraphs 11 and 12 of Dei Verbum.
Holy mother Church, relying on the belief of the Apostles, holds that the books of both the Old and New Testaments in their entirety, with all their parts, are sacred and canonical because written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. They have God as their author and have been handed on as such to the Church herself.
In composing the sacred books, God chose men, and while employed by Him, they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them, they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted.
Therefore, since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation. Therefore “all Scripture is divinely inspired and has its use for teaching the truth and refuting error, for reformation of manners and discipline in right living, so that the man who belongs to God may be efficient and equipped for good work of every kind” (2 Tim. 3:16-17, Greek text).
However, since God speaks in Sacred Scripture through men in human fashion, the interpreter of Sacred Scripture, in order to see clearly what God wanted to communicate to us, should carefully investigate what meaning the sacred writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words.
To search out the intention of the sacred writers, attention should be given, among other things, to “literary forms.” For truth is set forth and expressed differently in texts which are variously historical, prophetic, poetic, or of other forms of discourse. The interpreter must investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express and actually expressed in particular circumstances by using contemporary literary forms in accordance with the situation of his own time and culture. For the correct understanding of what the sacred author wanted to assert, due attention must be paid to the customary and characteristic styles of feeling, speaking and narrating which prevailed at the time of the sacred writer, and to the patterns men normally employed at that period in their everyday dealings with one another.
But, since Holy Scripture must be read and interpreted in the sacred spirit in which it was written, no less serious attention must be given to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture if the meaning of the sacred texts is to be correctly worked out. The living tradition of the whole Church must be taken into account along with the harmony which exists between elements of the faith. It is the task of exegetes to work according to these rules toward a better understanding and explanation of the meaning of Sacred Scripture, so that through preparatory study the judgment of the Church may mature. For all of what has been said about the way of interpreting Scripture is subject finally to the judgment of the Church, which carries out the divine commission and ministry of guarding and interpreting the word of God.
So, to answer my initial question in the title, the answer is “both”! Both God and St. Mark are true authors of the Gospel of Mark.