It was represented to me that in my approach to the New Testament gospels I was missing the “core message,” and in the process I was seemingly denying the central tenant of Christianity, namely that Jesus is God. Although certainly central to Christian faith today, the notion that Jesus is God – that he was always and will forever be God – was not always quite so simple. Although it is evident that Christians believe Jesus is now God, there was at one point in time an extensive debate regarding the relationship between God and Jesus, a debate which ultimately culminated in the doctrine of the Trinity.
The doctrine of the Trinity came about as a response to external, political pressures. It states that there is a single God who is composed of three divine persons: God the Father (יהוה: Yahweh), God the Son (Jesus), God the Holy Spirit. Although distinct in their own way, these persons do not represent individual deities, but are instead composed of a single substance or essence. It is important to note that the doctrine of the Trinity is nowhere stated in either the Old or the New Testament; it is an invention of church leaders brought together by the Roman emperor Constantine in 325 at the famous Council of Nicaea. It was at the Council of Nicaea that Constantine (r. 306-37) charged the church leaders with finding a single doctrinal statement which would do away with the competing claims of the various Christian sects of the 4th Century. It was in particular aimed at rendering a decision on the doctrine put forth by the theologian and presbyter Arius (d. 336). Arius stated that there had once been a time before the Son existed, when there was only God. God begot the Son subsequent to creation and through His magnanimity alone did Jesus also become God. This theological scenario is not too far removed from the trinitarian view insofar as Arius viewed Jesus the Son to be both distinct and subordinate from God, as well as a part of God. In political terms, the theological answers Arius proposed disagreed with such weighty contemporaries as Origen of Alexandria and Alexander of Alexandria, the patriarch of Alexandria in Arius’ lifetime, in that Arius believed Jesus was only made God following his resurrection, and was forever henceforth God.
The Council of Nicaea declared Arius and his teachings heretical, and in response codified the doctrine of the Trinity. It is here that we encounter the term “Nicaean Christianity,” a label used to distinguish the Christianity which followed the doctrine of the Trinity from the non-trinitarian traditions, such as Arianism. The label became necessary precisely because the non-trinitarian doctrines persisted, being at first the rule rather than the exception, and remaining so in certain communities as late as the 7th Century. Were it not for the considerable weight Imperial patronage lent to Nicaean Christianity, it is very possible to imagine a counterfactual scenario in which Western Christianity might have arisen more diversely. To this point in time, Christian thinking was open to various interpretations of scripture; it was only the centralization of Christian thought under Constantine that Christianity takes its first official step towards closing avenues to interpretation. It is perhaps more appropriate, therefore, to refer to Nicaean Christianity by its more appropriation appellation, “Roman Christianity” – which is the Christianity preserved for us down to the present. Little wonder the government of the church preserves a parallel version of Roman governance.
If from 325 onward we have the formation of modern Christianity following the Roman model, then prior to 325, the landscape of Christian thought must have been very different indeed if it allowed for the formation of both Arius and trinitarian doctrines, to name only two. Early Christianity allowed for not only more variety, but for transmission of Jesus’ teachings to different audiences, at different times, for different reasons. Since we imagine Jesus was not literate, then the only sources which tell his life come from literate followers who are almost certainly removed by a minimum of a generation from the events they relate. At such a remove, tradition begins to layer on top of fact and truth, particularly as transmission becomes more complicated. It is for this reason that Paul states that he is permitted to do as he sees fit in order to spread his message, being “[t]o the Jews…like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the Law…like one under the Law, to win those under the Law. To those without the law…like one without the law, to win those without the law.” (1 Corinthians 9:19-21). What Paul is telling us, without meaning to, is that early evangelizing Christianity was not uniform, but was instead changeable in order to be adaptable – to Constantine’s chagrin. What is clear both from Paul’s statement and the political foundations of the doctrine of the Trinity is that the doctrines of modern Christianity are not necessarily founded entirely in theological concerns; indeed, the very fact that a statement of belief had to be issued (i.e. the Nicene Creed) should be indicative of the political concerns at play.
Once doctrine is layered atop of teachings, its effect on the transmission of truth is compounded by both time and changes in doctrinal thinking. Whereas in the gospels the “holy spirit” is something of a divine essence or breath, in the compounding furnace of time, what was once enigmatic and amorphous becomes anthropomorphized into something equal and consubstantive with both God and Jesus, perhaps epitomized best by the American name “Holy Ghost.” And yet no such doctrinal language exists in the Biblical texts to accord this divine essence (πνεύματι ἁγίῳ) either the attributes of a person or the sort of independent will clearly present in both God and Jesus. This is but one example of how time and doctrine become entrenched “received wisdom” – also known as “dogma” – when in fact the very meanings of the text in their original form are being manipulated to say things which they did not mean to their original audiences. One is then left to wonder what has become of the original teachings – perhaps a or the core message – underpinning the entire set of beliefs. Did Jesus intend for all that he said to become not only contentious, but codified against diversity?
And so it is to that end – the desire to discover and understand a more accurate Jesus and his teachings – that I have devoted some of my spare time to the reading and composition of a translation of the Gospel of Mark from the Koine Greek into English. My decision to focus on Mark is related entirely to its apparent place as the earliest of the four canonical gospels, the others being Matthew, Luke, and John, respectively. Some notes on the history here, the information preserved in Mark was apparently known in part to the authors of both Matthew and Luke, who each at times repeat verbatim what is written in Mark, but not so with the author of John, who may not have been aware of or simply ignored Mark, Matthew, and Luke. John shows very evident signs of later theological developments, which includes protestations by Jesus of his own divinity preserved nowhere else in the other three gospels. For this reason experts in the field of New Testament studies feel certain that Mark represents the earliest of the canonical gospels and, logically, therefore is most likely to preserve the earliest accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry. If one is to find the first parts of Jesus’ message, they are to be found in the Gospel of Mark.
For reference of the Koine Greek, I have made use of the Codex Sinaiticus, which preserves our earliest extant text of Mark dated to the middle of the 3rd Century, and the Perseus Digital Library, which provides dictionary and grammatical aids, as well as a revised version of the Koine edited in 1885. Alongside these editions of the Koine, I have also made use of the Aramaic-to-English New Testament (AENT, 3rd edition) available from Netzari Press for the purpose of cross-referencing. The translation which I have composed attempts to be as accurate to the original historical and cultural context into which the texts were placed in circulation. It is my personal belief that a deeper understanding of the original texts can lead to a closer understanding of Jesus and his ministry.