I've been rereading Mark's Gospel and it suddenly struck me that there is a common sense assumption I have made about the gospels all my life that is just wrong.
I'd always taken the gospels as a memory project. To put it crudely, a project to get the story down before it's forgotten. I'd assumed that one of two things happened. Either that teachers in the "Jesus Movement" had written these things down as ways to pass along a message from the centre to the edges of the movement or that the gospels had been written at a moment of crisis of memory when the generation with direct memory of the events had begun to die off.
The Gospel of Mark, however, represents a huge challenge to this. No one with any kind of memory project would have written such a book.
It seems to me that Mark was motivated primarily by the loss of Jerusalem. It also seems clear to me that Mark wrote at some distance from Jerusalem. He was hearing of war and rumours of war. The only thing he knew for certain was that something really bad had happened to Jerusalem.
This caused a crisis because the centre of a religious practice had been destroyed. My guess is that the connections between whatever sort of religious practice was going on in Mark's community and what was happening in Jerusalem were tenuous. Jerusalem was not so important as an administrative centre of the "Jesus movement"(I'll explain these scare quotes in a moment) as it was an important symbol.
It was like an old capital that no longer has any political function. It was a place people talked about and said, this is where this and this really happened. And now the rumours were that the Romans were about to destroy Jerusalem.
Mark needed to reconnect with the centre of Christianity. There are two ways you could think about this. One is that he needed to invent a new centre for the one that was lost. The second is that he needed to define what the centre always was for him because the primary symbol of that centre was now gone. I go with the second option.
I see a project much like what a family might have to do when the grandmother and grandfather sell the old family farm. "We never went to that place anymore but it was a focus for us given that we all live in different cities now and don't see each other even at Christmas."
If I am right, then Matthew and Luke are not attempts to build on what Mark had done but are, rather, attempts to correct what he had done. Both those gospels have large sections of agreement with Mark but also make huge modifications.
Matthew looks at the disjunctive apocalyptic vision of Mark and says, "No, that's not right. The really important thing is the continuity. Jesus came to fulfill the law." Luke also thinks the apocalyptic break is wrong but he sees the continuity in a community founded by Jesus.
Okay, here is the thing about the "Jesus Movement". Luke, it seems to me, largely creates the idea of a movement. Yes, there were disciples and special disciples called apostles but the notion that there was a central church at Jerusalem that conferred authority on others is an exaggeration of Luke's. He looked at the historical facts as he knew them and said, "This is how it must have been."
But the movement in question as never any movement in Jerusalem or Galilee. The movement, if that is the right word for it, that Mark, Matthew and Luke cherished was a movement that spread through the Hellenistic world. It was a movement based on a man named Jesus whose teachings were very influential and who had instituted something at a supper he held with his disciples just before his death.
It was only much later that the three books were recruited to be used as part of a memory project but they had never been intended for such a use.